The Skeptics

Rough Seas Ahead for Navy’s Surface Fleet?

In its markup of the National Defense Authorization Act, the House Armed Services Committee proposed a number of changes to the Obama administration’s plans for the U.S. Navy. The NDAA rescinds the retirement of three cruisers and restricts retirement of ballistic-missile submarines (so as not to fall below a minimum of twelve). The bill also contains an amendment which authorizes a GAO review of the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program. The amendments collectively reflect the committee’s concern that the navy won’t be able to fulfill its current missions with fewer and perhaps less capable ships. Unfortunately, no one is asking whether any of those missions could be modified, eliminated or shifted to others.

I will address some of those issues at a Cato policy forum this Monday, May 21, at noon. I am particularly thrilled to be joined by Undersecretary of the Navy Robert O. Work, Ben Freeman of the Project on Government Oversight and Eric J. Labs of the Congressional Budget Office. Those three make this an all-star cast to discuss the future of a U.S. surface fleet that is undergoing some major changes. With the retirement of the navy’s cruisers and frigates, the development of bigger and more complex destroyers, and the introduction of the LCS, tomorrow’s surface fleet will look quite different than today’s.

Congress is particularly concerned about the LCS because of reports of design and construction flaws and operational problems, including this letter issued by the Project on Government Oversight and a subsequent article in Aviation Week. But some are also concerned that even though LCSs eventually will constitute about one-third of the navy’s surface combatants, the LCS is not supposed to engage in combat. In addition, its mission modules, especially the antisubmarine-warfare package, are years away from operability.

Our panel will address many of the questions swirling around the surface fleet today, including: How will the replacement of thirty frigates with the still-untested LCS affect the navy’s overall capability? Will the ballistic-missile-defense requirement reduce the availability of destroyers for other missions? Could the navy pursue a different strategy to advance U.S. national security that could be executed with fewer ships? Of course, the answers to all of those questions are framed within the context of declining procurement budgets. Given that reality, one could argue that the greatest threat to the U.S. Navy’s surface fleet is its undersea fleet: the looming SSBN(X) program could devour the shipbuilding budget for a decade.

So, with no shortage of difficult and far-reaching decisions ahead for the navy, it is a privilege to have Undersecretary Work, Ben and Eric to help us navigate the way. I hope you can join us on Monday.