A Ship Adrift is Never an Accident
neglect, incompetency, or by intent
Yesterday’s article by Seligman, Hudson, & McLeary over at Politico created a nice buzz in the navalist chatterati over the weekend and for good reason – it is a solid summary of a core dysfunction in our nation’s inability to properly provide and maintain a navy.
When you see such dysfunction, it is easy to blame individuals or this political party or that, but this dog’s breakfast stewardship of our nation’s maritime legacy is a symptom, not a cause of failures such as this;
The Navy of the future needs 316 ships. Actually, make that 327. No, more like 367. You know what? Let’s make it 373, or maybe even 500.
At different points this year, the Pentagon and Navy leaders have floated all five numbers as the desired size of the Navy, the result of a high-stakes — and still raging — internal battle among top Navy, Marine Corps and Pentagon leaders.
And the discord at the top has real-world consequences for America’s sea service, denying lawmakers a number to shoot for as they figure out how many ships to buy in the fiscal year that starts in October, and beyond.
That, along with what follows down-post, are red and amber lights on our maritime security dashboard. The structure, machinery, bureaucracy, habits, and procedures are stuttering, smoking, pinging, and swaying under the Rube Goldberg accretions that have grown around the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols/Joint framework that everyone is trying to work around. Good people are producing bad product because they are using worn out and antiquated tools.
It does not work, and everyone trying to force-mode all of DOD around it continues to ill-serve the nation. It works even less well when parts of it are simply mothballed while others are left distracted and dithering in irrelevance;
On one end is Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks, who is spearheading an effort to cut the number of traditional, large-deck amphibs and invest in uncrewed ships and other lighter vessels, the people said. But Hicks’ vision is at odds with plans put forth by Navy and Marine Corps leaders, who want to keep dozens of the ships they say are a key component to moving Marines and aircraft around the Indo-Pacific as the U.S. seeks to deter an aggressive China.
DEPSECDEF Hicks is not a bad person, she is just wrong. A smart DC player, she not only is fully leveraging her assigned position, but she also quickly saw the weaknesses and capability gaps of the SECDEF and in the case our Navy the SECNAV, to step in and gain additional power and influence for her and her priorities through sheer force of will, drive, and relative competence.
This has left those with alternative views relatively helpless;
But Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro, a Biden appointee and retired naval officer, has been a proponent of keeping the number of amphibs around its current strength of 31, a vision shared by Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger who won support in Congress this year to block Pentagon plans to have the fleet shrink to 25 ships in the coming years.
Yet Marine and Navy leaders are at odds with each other over another issue: Berger also wants to add 35 new light amphibious warships to allow his Marines to move through island chains more quickly while presenting less of a target. That’s a vision Navy leadership has never fully supported.
Differing opinions at the top of the Pentagon and Navy leadership chains is nothing new. Given the huge costs involved in designing and building new ships, the overall size and shape of the fleet has always been a politically fraught issue. And the constantly shifting global security dynamic often leads to clashes between the admirals and civilians at the Pentagon and Capitol Hill.
That last part falls right in the lap of the SECDEF and his staff. The Navy cannot even hope to mitigate the power of Hicks divided and squabbling as it is. It needs a firm, united, and confrontational stance as opposed to what appears to be; trying to stay within 80% of a self-imposed red-line to not get in trouble.
We are well past the time where we need leaders willing to get in trouble. This is serious business, and as I asked years ago, where is today’s VADM Connelly when you need him?
During the Trump administration, national security adviser Robert O’Brien and Defense Secretary Mark Esper seized on the 355 figure — as Trump did in his presidential campaign — but then oversaw successive budgets that actually cut shipbuilding funding by billions of dollars. At one point in early 2020, Esper rejected the Navy’s annual shipbuilding plan, taking control over the process and holding up its release for almost a year, only to release it in December 2020 — a month before Joe Biden moved into the White House, all but ensuring they would be scrapped immediately by the new team.
The plan was also likely impossible to implement, calling for a fleet of over 500 ships by 2045, a dramatic increase from the 298 ships in service today. To get there, it proposed building 82 new ships by 2026, doubling the Navy’s previous plan to manufacture 44 new ships by 2025, a pace of building that would likely be unachievable for the U.S. shipbuilding industry.
I remember the day Trump surprisingly won in 2016. I dropped a note to a few equally-surprised navalists saying something to the effect, “Hey, he called for a big Navy, here’s an opportunity…” … and that didn’t quite work out all that well.
Again, it is easy to say, “wrong people” and that has something to do with it, but they were trying to move inside an ossified, accretion hobbled machine that is hard to move, fully of rent seeking obstacles, and is mostly focused on one thing; self-preservation. Delay in forming your team only makes it worse.
In April of this year, the Navy released its latest 30-year shipbuilding plan that contained three options: 316 ships, 327 ships, and 367 ships, all with different assumptions over budget and what kinds of ships were purchased. Then in June, the Navy sent Congress a classified report saying its plans called for 373 ships, USNI News reported. But a Navy official told POLITICO that the new report focused only on operational needs, and ignored budgets and shipyard capacity, giving it no real connection to the realities of budgets or the industrial base. The Navy plans to send an update of that report to the Hill this year.
“The mismatch on where the Biden Pentagon team and the Navy-Marine Corps [stand], that’s the source of that tension,” said one person with knowledge of the internal discussions, who, like others, asked for anonymity to speak candidly about the debate. “[Hicks’] thesis and where she thinks the department needs to go does not necessarily involve a Navy with larger numbers.”
The effort in Congress for a more intrusive oversight is way overdue. The uniformed leadership is down to cringe pleading, the civilian leadership is generally hobbled by conflicting incentives … and as I will flesh out in tomorrow’s post, everything else is letting maritime security requirements of our nation down.
If you were conspiracy minded, you might think that the Executive Branch wants to make the Navy as dysfunctional and rudderless as possible;
Instead, Ross was relocated to the acquisition job where he does not have authority to sign off on major deals, the two people said.
Ross is more aligned with Hicks’ vision for the fleet, the people said.
“There is tension between Carlos and Tommy Ross and by extension between Del Toro and Kath Hicks,” said one former Pentagon official familiar with the discussions. “Del Toro wants to go a different direction and he feels like he’s being constrained by Kath Hicks.”
…but wait, how does the phrase go, “You’re not being paranoid if someone is actually trying to get you.”
I refer you back to the top of the article; Hicks wants the Navy’s money for her priorities. The wrong priorities.
We have a system for checks and balances for a reason, now is the time. We cannot wait for a new Executive Branch national security team. Congress – regardless of party – has its prerogatives and responsibilities. It is time for navalists of all persuasions to reach for the oversight banner and wave it high.
If we do that right, I know one byproduct will come out clear as day – we cannot continue to provide for our nation’s defense requirements using a structure built in the mid-1980s. That can only be fixed by Congress.
We are running out of time.