US Navy may get shipbuilding boost from Congress

The announcement on Wednesday by Representative Murtha that the House Defense Appropriations subcommittee will approve funds for five more ships to this year's defence programme, at least one of which will be an attack submarine, is consistent with recommendations in three recent force structure studies. A comparative analysis of these studies was issues on 9 April by the Congressional Research Service (Order Code RL 33955).

Entitled "Navy Force Structure: Alternative Force Structure Studies of 2005" the three plans examined were authored by the Center for Naval Analysis (CNA), the Office of Force Transformation (OFT), and the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA). The reports presented a scale of change alternatives, with the CNA report the most traditional and the OFT the most radical. The CSBA report was a middle option.

Where the three reports vary hardly at all is in the number of attack submarines within their fleet plans. The CNA report recommended 52 nuclear attack submarines in their plan for a 375 ship navy. The OFT report recommended 48 submarines, although they were of a non-nuclear type, using new Air Independent Propulsion instead. The CSBA report recommended 54 nuclear attack submarines. So, the range of recommended numbers of attack submarines was narrow, between 48 and 54. The range of numbers recommended for other types of ships was far less coherent between the three reports.

With such consistency between the reports where the number of attack submarines is concerned, it is easy to see why the decision to build an extra one this year is a 'no brainer'. Neither is it difficult to see why no decision has been taken about what type of ships the other four additions will become. The USN is in the midst of a major force restructuring and a minor scandal about cost overruns with the Littoral Combat Ship program. Likewise, the USCG is struggling to bring its own Deepwater shipbuilding program costs under control.

With such theoretical confusion and administrative difficulty obscuring the 'way forward' for American surface fleets, committing to an orderly submarine construction programme that 'fits' their industrial capacity was a safe first step. The next decisions will be far less easy to reach.