Will Shipbuilding Disasters Doom the U.S. Navy’s Plans to Counter China?

Will Shipbuilding Disasters Doom the U.S. Navy’s Plans to Counter China?

A change in administration likely presages some changes to the details of the Navy’s plans, including the final shipbuilding total, but we can still expect to see plenty of new naval construction in the coming years.

The Defense Department has bold ambitions for the future of the Navy, centering on growing the fleet significantly in the next three decades. But based on the Navy’s track record of failed shipbuilding programs over the past 20 years, it is impossible to see how the service could bring its ambitions to fruition.

On December 9, the Navy released its 30-year shipbuilding plan to counter a rising China, calling for a 546-ship fleet by 2051. The new fleet would be made up of 403 manned battle force ships and 143 unmanned surface and subsurface vessels. This plan is even more ambitious than the one put forward by former Defense Secretary Mark Esper that would see the fleet grow to a total of 500 ships by 2045. To accomplish its 30-year plan, the Navy would have to grow its current fleet of 297 ships by 84%.

A change in administration likely presages some changes to the details of the Navy’s plans, including the final shipbuilding total, but we can still expect to see plenty of new naval construction in the coming years. Navy leaders are carrying on with the 500-ship fleet as their goal. The key assumption of China as the pacing threat is well entrenched for virtually all the key players on both sides of the aisle in the national security establishment. Anyone we can expect the Biden administration to appoint to leadership positions inside the Pentagon will almost certainly adhere to this key tenet of the national security hive mind.

The stated goal of the shipbuilding plan is to create a fleet that would survive a war against a peer navy and would be able to strike at long ranges. The new fleet would include more submarines, smaller aircraft carriers, and optionally manned surface and subsurface ships. The entire fleet would be linked together by a global communications network.

Getting to 546 ships is not simply a matter of adding 249 new hulls. The Navy must also replace the ships that are decommissioned between now and the projected completion date. The Navy plans to retire nine ships in 2021 alone, and an average of 10 per year through 2051. It plans to build 409 new ships during the same time period, or an average of 13.5 a year.

Even looking just at cost considerations, it is difficult to see how we would get to there from here. The Navy’s budget request for fiscal year 2021 includes $19.9 billion for shipbuilding. Under the current plan, the Navy expects to spend $147 billion to build 82 new ships in the next five years. The service’s annual shipbuilding budget would have to increase by nearly $10 billion a year just to reach a 355-ship fleet according to the Congressional Budget Office. Getting to 500 would mean adding at least an additional $20 billion in shipbuilding funds per year. And it would require a total annual Navy budget of more than $300 billion—far more than the $207.1 billion the service requested this year—to cover the sustainment and personnel costs to support a fleet of that size.

Based on those factors alone, any major fleet increase is unworkable, according to former acting Navy Secretary Tom Modly. “What we have now is simply a proclamation with no details, about a 500 Ship Navy by 2045,” he told Forbes. “Without a national consensus, and the corresponding funding for it, that number is meaningless, and the timeframe is strategically irrelevant.”

Beyond questions of costs, realizing such an ambitious fleet goal will be difficult for a service that has, for 20 years, a nearly unbroken record of pursuing flawed ship concepts and failed programs. Since the beginning of the 21st century, the Navy’s acquisition story has been one of spiraling costs and technological flops that are unlikely to survive in the heavily defended waters where they are expected to fight. The Ford-class aircraft carrier, the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), and the DDG-1000 Zumwalt-class Destroyers have all been painful and expensive experiences. The Navy has already all but abandoned the Littoral Combat Ship and the Zumwalt programs, and leaders have begun looking beyond the Ford program.

Before the Navy embarks on a new push to grow the fleet, military leaders both in and out of uniform should see if the current fleet mix still works or if the Navy should move away from large surface ships and invest more in submarine and unmanned vessels. Whatever course they take, leaders would do well to look back through recent history to avoid repeating obvious mistakes.

With the Ford, Littoral Combat Ship, and Zumwalt programs, the Navy attempted to cram its ships with as many new technologies as possible. Construction on each began before engineers completed the development process on the new systems, which inevitably resulted in skyrocketing costs and schedule delays. Several technological goals were never realized, which, in the case of the Littoral Combat Ship and the Zumwalt, left the Navy with ships that could not perform their intended role in the fleet. Both will likely end up in the scrapyard without ever having provided service to compensate for the time and tax dollars poured into them.

Ford-class Aircraft Carriers


Aircraft carriers became the capital ships of the Navy during World War II. They serve as the centerpiece of the Navy’s main operational formation, carrier strike groups. The carriers are by far the largest and most expensive ships in the fleet. Because of this, the christening of a new class of aircraft carriers in November 2013 prompted much celebration.

As construction continued on the new USS Gerald R. Ford, that celebratory spirit faded when it became apparent that the new and risky major technologies incorporated into the design, numbering nearly a dozen, would cause the delivery schedule to be pushed back while the costs of the program inevitably rose. Navy leaders originally expected delivery of the ship in 2014 at a cost of $10.5 billion. The Ford wasn’t commissioned until July 2017, and ended up costing more than $13.3 billion.

Many analysts have questioned the continued utility of large-deck aircraft carriers, particularly against a peer military competitor. Retired Navy captain Jerry Hendrix put it this way: “We are building carriers now that will last 50 years and so therefore you’re making a 150-year bet that no one will figure out how to make this go away.” These concerns should not be lightly dismissed. While an aircraft carrier is a potent symbol of military power, this also makes them inviting targets. Advances in anti-ship missile technology have greatly increased the dangers to aircraft carriers, so questioning their continued relevance is hardly unreasonable.

Whether supercarriers are the right investment or not, the way the Navy has approached the Ford-class ships is certainly flawed. In the manner of nearly every Pentagon program, the cost and schedule of the new ship suffered due to the desire to reinvent the wheel on major ship systems.

Launching Problems

The Ford-class carriers are meant to replace the existing Nimitz-class carriers. The Nimitz fleet, while powered by nuclear reactors, uses steam to operate their catapults to launch aircraft and the arresting gear to land them. To launch aircraft, the new Ford-class carriers use an Electromagnetic Launch System, or EMALS. The system stores a massive electrical charge (enough to power 12,000 homes, a town about the size of Juneau, Alaska, for the three seconds it takes to launch an aircraft) and then quickly releases the current into electromagnets that push the aircraft down the launch track and into the air.

Navy leaders claim they decided to switch to the EMALS in part because the new system will be cheaper to operate over the long-term, as it requires fewer people to operate and is predicted to be easier to maintain. The jury is still out on whether EMALS will deliver on its cost promises, and testing has already shown the Navy underestimated the workload and the number of people necessary to operate the system.

The EMALS was also supposed to increase aircraft lifespan by using a more controlled release of energy than steam catapults during a launch, which was supposed to reduce the stress on airframes. But tests have shown that the system actually overstressed F-18 airframes.

EMALS also fails to deliver on the promise of maintainability. Its design makes it impossible for the crew to repair one catapult while others are launching aircraft. The Ford has four launch catapults so that (theoretically) if one fails, the ship could continue launching aircraft from the remaining three. The crews of the Nimitz-class carriers do this as a matter of routine because each catapult operates independently. An adversary does not have to sink an aircraft carrier to render it ineffective, as a few well-placed shots to the carrier’s deck could disable a catapult.

With the Ford’s system designed as it is now, the crew would have no way to fix battle damage in the middle of combat. The crew on the Ford has no way to electrically isolate each catapult during flight operations, raising questions about the system’s operational suitability. Sailors must wait until all flight operations have been completed and the entire system is powered down to make repairs to a failed catapult. Navy leaders should have caught this design flaw while the ship was still on the drawing board. Should multiple catapults fail, all flights may have to be suspended to allow repairs. That means the ship might not be able to launch any planes at a critical moment because the EMALS designers failed to provide independent power for each of the four catapults.

And so far, the EMALS has a poor reliability track record. According to the most recent testing report on the carrier, the Ford suffered 10 critical EMALS failures during its first 747 launches. That might seem like a reasonable record, but one failure in every 75 launches is actually 50 times worse than the 4,166 launches between failures the system is supposed to achieve per the contract specifications.

Landing Problems

Aircraft don’t really land on a ship; they essentially crash in a highly controlled fashion. Instead of rolling out to a stop on a conventional runway, a plane landing on an aircraft carrier has to catch a cable on the flight deck with a hook attached to the plane to bring it to a stop on the relatively short deck. The Navy went with unproven technology for the Ford’s system to capture aircraft during landings. Just like the EMALS, the new electrical arresting system has proven to be more of a challenge than the Navy expected.