Recent reporting in the New York Times and elsewhere makes a strong case that the United States Navy, the biggest and strongest Navy in the world, is a Navy suited to a past that no longer exists.
The problems and issues are not new. Change comes with great difficulty in institutions as large and powerful as National Defense. A longstanding mantra says: Generals and Admirals prepare to fight the last war. This is often the verdict on why wars are lost. The US Navy shows signs of fighting the last wars and as it prepares for future wars..
Eric Lipton in the New York Times offers the example of the Navy’s $32 billion 2024 budget devoted in part to building traditional destroyers and transports to satisfy those who believe, as one President of a shipyard put it: “More ships are always better.”
The military/industrial complex ought to be more than a servant to the Pentagon. To the corporations that build new ships the military/industrial complex means tens of thousands of jobs; to politicians ship building enhances employment and the economy in their home districts and states.
In addition the Pentagon has become adept at lobbying. Some reports say that the largest number of lobbyists at any given time on Capitol Hill are military officers, who wear civilian clothes to “blend in and not stand out” to the hundreds of civilian lobbyists. But when Pentagon lobbyists testify they are ordered to wear their uniforms.
The old Navy has the support of its current officers who will not risk their ranks to criticize Pentagon decisions. One retired admiral sees it differently. “The U.S. Navy is arrogant,” said retired admiral William Shelby who used to buy ships for the Navy. “We have an arrogance about, we’ve got these aircraft carriers, we’ve got these amazing submarines. We don’t know anything else. And that is just wrong.”
The Navy is not alone in lobbying; Congressional Representatives and Senators from the districts and States that benefit from the Pentagon’s budget added $24 billion extra money for the Navy in the past eight years. That is more than any other part of the Pentagon budget.
Despite the increase the Navy was found short on basic maintenance. A recent Government Accounting Office study of 10 years of Navy operations found annual increases in “casualty” reports of most Navy ships. ”Casualty reports” is government speak for problems significant enough to keep ships from fulfilling their missions. It can take months to years to repair a breakdown on a Navy ship
Put simply, the current Navy, the older Navy, is less operational every year. Maintenance delays needed to prevent the breakdowns were even higher than “casualty reports,” according to the GAO study. Why? “Shortage of personnel and restrictions on overtime” hours due to “budgetary constraints.” Another explanation is “cannibalization,” government speak for the practice of pulling used parts off of one ship to make another ship’s systems run, a practice that takes the cannibalized ships out of service. Finally the ever present: “costs are up.”
Where the Navy spends its padded, obsolete budget is another factor. Take the case of the Zumwalt class of destroyers, one of the Navy’s attempts to leap to a “modern Navy.”
These new destroyers would be the largest destroyers ever built at 600 feet, and were expected to replace all of the Navy’s ageing fleet of Arleigh Burke destroyers. They were to be “the next generation” that would last for 40 years.
The first of the new destroyers broke down in its first test run in the Panama Canal. Its sister ship broke down a year later on its first test run. Each ship was supposed to cost $4.4 billion to build. The first two came in at nearly double that cost; though this is not unusual as any homeowner knows. But in this case the costs are tens of millions, not thousands.
General Dynamics Bath Works in Maine spent $40 million building new facilitates to make the new destroyers. The two covered pods on the front deck of the Zumwalts were designed to fire a new guided shell. Each shell cost $800,000, more expensive than a cruise missile which had a longer range and greater fire power. When the cost of the shell reached Congress, Congress cancelled the weapon and left the Zumwalts without any firepower.
It gets worse. A 2018 report from Military Watch Magazine reported the ships “suffered from poorly functioning weapons, stalling engines, and an underperformance in their stealth capabilities, among other shortcomings.” Sebastian Roblin, a military expert writing in the magazine National Interest in 2021 called the Zumwalts an “ambitious but failed ship concept.”
In sum, the destroyers lacked vital features of the old destroyers it was designed to replace: anti-ship missiles, anti-submarine torpedoes, and air defense missiles. The destroyer of the future had no functioning firepower, no means of protecting itself from attack from under the sea, on the sea or from the air. The final blow came when the Navy admitted in Congressional testimony that the Zumwalts had also never had a clear mission.
In the “new” versus “old” Navy scenario, research underscores the need for smart changes. These forward looking concepts are part of the Navy’s attempt to deal with the rapidly changing technologies now available that already make questionable the viability of traditional surface ships like the planned fleet of ten or more Ford-class aircraft carriers that have taken 25 years to develop at a cost of more than $13 billion each. Only two of those carriers currently exist and only one of them is operational and mission capable.
The final bad news came recently in Senate Armed Services testimony by the Acting Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Lisa Franchetti. Admiral Franchetti testified that the Navy has missed its annual recruitment targets by 7,000 recruits. (The Navy had internal projections that had the shortfall at 13,000 recruits.)
Only 23 percent of Americans 17-24 meet Navy recruitment standards. The problems include criminal records, low test scores, fitness and health issues. Even $35,000 signing bonuses have not helped.
One high- ranking Navy officer lamented that he did not see a “modern” US Navy emerging for at least a generation.