The Terrible 20s Get Crunchy

math is hard - budgets are math with personality

Thinking and planning are easy. Words can have flexible meaning and an artful planner can devise all sorts of trap doors, detours, and branches to allow their ideas a certain degree of flexibility.

Math, however, is hard. Budgets are even harder. They are math with personality.

We have reviewed the challenges of what we’ve come to call “The Terrible 20s” for over a decade. Now that we find ourselves here, what does this upcoming decade hold now that we no longer see the 20s dimly through the haze, but can see its details in sharp relief?

The first step in solving a problem is to admit it. That is easy for individuals as it only takes one entity to take the step – it is much more difficult for institutions. Sometimes it can be impossible for government institutions. 

We’ve chronicled the myriad of challenges faced by our Navy and others raised the alarm for years, getting traction now and then, seeming to simply scream in to the void the rest of the time. We may be getting some traction.

I offer to you a document that everyone here needs to take time to read sooner more than later, The 2020s Tri-Service Modernization Crunch by Mackenzie Eaglen and Hallie Coyne from the American Enterprise Institute.

At just 73 pages, it is easily digested, but let me get a few pull quotes for you to ponder ahead of time.

The opening two paragraphs of the Executive Summary take no prisoners and puts decision makers on report. Just solid.

President Joe Biden’s new administration and the 117th Congress must respond to a uniquely difficult political and fiscal environment; as part ofthis mandate, they will be charged with addressing the enduring mismatch of US defense strategy and resources, which contributes to ongoing supply and demand imbalances regarding requests for forces by combatant commanders. Since these challenges have been growing unchecked for years, the coming decade looms large as the US military is facing a massive spending spike to pay for modernization bills across the Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, and Army that have been ignored, deferred, or inadequately considered. Although this was foreseen and forewarned, insufficient action has been taken. Resolution requires political courage, persistence, innovation, risk, and resources.

Fleets of ships, aircraft, vehicles, and other equipment are reaching the end of their service lives, hitting the edge of their upgrade limits, and losing combat relevance. As great-power competition accelerates, the United States is offering a free and open window of opportunity and advantage to its adversaries. Unless policymakers take concrete steps now, defense leaders will continue America’s sleepwalk into strategic insolvency and its consequences. The aptly named “Terrible 20s” have arrived.

…and yes, our “Terrible 20s” has officially broken in to the general lexicon.

...there is no easy way out of this fiscal bind for the US military. Rather, now is the time for effective mitigation strategies, urgent worst-case scenario planning, hard choices, and political leadership.

100% unalloyed truth. We have run out of time for more pet theories and CONOPS running on pixie dust and unicorn poop. 

The martial branch of the Gods of the Copybook Headings has joined the chat;

With the Hopes that our World is built on they were utterly out of touch,

They denied that the Moon was Stilton; they denied she was even Dutch;

They denied that Wishes were Horses; they denied that a Pig had Wings;

So we worshipped the Gods of the Market Who promised these beautiful things.

...

As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man

There are only four things certain since Social Progress began.

That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,

And the burnt Fool's bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire;

And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins

When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins,

As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,

The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!

It would be rude if I didn’t take a moment on behalf of the Front Porch (you regulars know that you are part of CDR Salamander as much as I am) to thank the authors for the hat tip;

In 2016, popular military blogger and Navy Cmdr. CDR Salamander (ret.) coined the phrase “Terrible 20s” to describe the modernization challenges before the US military this coming decade. He offered an ominous overview of the next 10 years as “that horrible mix of debt bombs, recapitalizing our SSBN [ballistic missile submarines] fleet, and the need to replace and modernize legacy aircraft, ships, and the concepts that designed them.”2 It is a bracing and accurate summary of the following analysis. In this case, the first step in addressing the problem is reminding the policymakers that it exists. The second step—incumbent on leaders in Congress, at the Pentagon, and in the White House—is being honest about the consequences. The third is generating the willpower and spending the political capital to pay for it. *

That last part cuts to the bone. Since the dawn of the Age of Transformationalism 20 years ago and through the socio-political posturing of the tenure of Mullen, Roughead, and others - how much political and institutional capital have we poured down rabbit holes for reasons of vanity or personal picayune projects? 

This is such a powerful report, but to avoid falling in to a long blog post, let’s fast forward on to the Navy section for a bit before I send you along to read the whole thing.

Of all the services, Navy leadership usually best articulates the severity of its approaching crunch. The sea services possess significant advantages in both an analytical and legislative context. Armed with long-range shipbuilding forecasting, a dedicated congressional naval caucus, and a 355-ship goal enshrined in executive and legislative policy, Navy leadership began sending up flares about the modernization crunch years ago. Annually, the CBO also sounds the alarm.

If the Navy received the same average annual amount of funding (in constant dollars) for ship construction in each of the next 30 years that it has received over the past three decades, the service would not be able to afford its 2020 shipbuilding plan. . . . CBO’s estimate of $31.0 billion per year for the full cost of the plan is almost double the $16.0 billion the Navy has received in annual appropriations, on average, over the past 30 years for all activities funded by its shipbuilding account.

This unified effort delivered results, or at least generated awareness, in the past.

True. With receptive ears, after a few FY, a new administration can move the needle in a positive direction if they so wish. One  example, see what happened when Trump took over from Obama;

What about the Biden Administration?

In the Navy’s case, its short-term 2020s procurement crunch centers on shipbuilding, partly because the Navy’s aviation modernization is largely wrapping up, relatively speaking. After dropping to only 271 battle-force ships in 2015,152 the smallest Navy since World War II, the service is challenged by the twofold task of replacing its aging submarine and destroyer fleet while procuring enough ships to work toward the 355-ship goal set in its 2016 Force Structure Assessment (FSA) and confirmed by the Trump administration’s National Defense Strategy and the FY18 NDAA.

This is a known unknown, hopefully they will ignore the petty, “Trump was for it, so we can’t be” reflex.

GAO and others have expressed concern about the poor state of the Navy’s four remaining shipyards. 161 After years of underinvestment, it is unclear if the shipbuilding industrial base, already struggling to maintain the Navy’s current force, could keep up with the demands of a larger fleet.162 These issues make the 355-ship goal appear largely unrealistic and put the Navy at risk of creating a hollow force of poorly maintained and undermanned ships. Meanwhile, the Chinese navy has been expanding both its size and its shipbuilding capacity, growing its navy by over 27 percent and its commercial shipbuilding by 60 percent from 2007 to 2017, now far surpassing American industrial capability with no signs of slowing.

This is what I worry about the most today. We have so many “must do” areas overdue at the same time. We are here because of 20-years of failure to have a proper understanding to stewardship that requires hard work now so others later will harvest the rewards later. Instead, we chased short term talking points and the petty praise of the moment. 

As we’ve discussed here and over on Midrats, this maintenance leg of our maritime power – it absolutely cannot be ignored any more. I would rather have money put to this than building more ships. Easily.

If we desire to be a serious power on a global scale, we have to retain our place as the premier maritime power. We cannot be a global power without one. This decade is starting with China on the brink of being able to push us off. If we don’t start to act with vigor and purpose, we will end the decade as the secondary power at sea.

We won’t like what the world looks like after that, and neither will the world.

Decline is a choice. It does not have to turn out that way. It is in our control.

* - NB: "The Terrible 20s" was actually coined in a post about SSBN(X) in 2010 - but in context of the quote used, 2016 is correct.