Crisis Time for US Seapower

Moderator’s Note: This article originally appeared on the Information Dissemination website, dated Wednesday, 24 August 2011.  It is especially relevant for Canadian readers because of the projected reductions in the USN budget at 5% and 10%, which mirror the approach being take by the Canadian ‘Strategic and Operating Review’. ‘OMB’ in the article refers to the Office of Management and Budget which operates from the White House as part of the executive branch of government.  My thanks to CFPS Research Fellow Stan Weeks for bringing this article to my attention. It is reprinted here with the permission of the publisher.]

In reading around the news lately, I've seen some silly discussions related to the navy. There is a discussion over at DoD Buzz, for example, that asks if the navy should be building frigates instead of the Littoral Combat Ship. Talk about a hypothetical discussion completely disconnected from the reality facing the navy today. Lets do some simple hypothetical math to get people refocused on the real problem.

This was the original navy POM12 baseline budget plan (all numbers below in billions):

FY12 $161.4
FY13 $165.4
FY14 $168.9
FY15 $173.0
FY16 $175.9

This is the original navy POM12 Assumption | Less OMB 5% | Less OMB 10%

FY12 $161.4
FY13 $165.4 | (-$8.27) | (-$16.54)
FY14 $168.9 | (-$8.44) | (-$16.89)
FY15 $173.0 | (-$8.65) | (-$17.30)
FY16 $175.9 | (-$8.80) | (-$17.59)

So before we even deal with the current $350 billion in defense cuts as outlined by the Budget Control Act of 2011 that partially funds the government just until the end of the first term of the Obama administration - a process which includes the yet to be decided super committee plan; the navy is facing heavy cuts quickly from OMB unless they can find some way to completely dismiss OMB guidance (which they might).

Now, I fully expect the DoD to be hit by big budget cuts in the neighborhood of $850 billion over 10 years, more or less the budget cut that comes if the super committee fails to produce an alternative (I believe all alternatives seriously considered will have the same defense cuts included). That means we will see cuts to the navy like this based solely on the Congress plan, not the additional OMB additional guidance:

FY12 $161.4
FY13 $165.4 (-$3.9)
FY14 $168.9 (-$7.54)
FY15 $173.0 (-$11.02)
FY16 $175.9 (-$14.79)

For those curious how I am drawing these figures, I'm basically assuming a flat line defense budget at $560B for FY13 numbers (which is a high number btw) for 10 years and presuming $850 billion in cuts over those 10 years, then extrapolating what the Navy's share might be if 29% of the total DoD cut is applied to the navy.

If the navy gets hit with both the Super Committee cuts and just the OMB 5% cuts (not 10%), this is what the currently planned POM12 budget | Post POM12 cut budget | Total Budget Cut looks like:

FY12 $161.4
FY13 $165.4 | $153.23 | (-$12.17)
FY14 $168.9 | $152.92 | (-$15.98)
FY15 $173.0 | $153.33 | (-$19.67)
FY16 $175.9 | $152.31 | (-$23.59)

In other words, if the Super Committee fails to find a deal and the trigger kicks in for the Budget Control Act of 2011, and OMB guidance for POM13 cuts the DoD 5% like it probably will for every other government agency, the navy POM13 budget must be introduced with a budget that is ~$100 billion less than expected.

Who in the hell seriously thinks the navy is going to immediately move to design a new frigate in this fiscal environment? The navy will be lucky to afford a DDG-51 Flight III design, much less a frigate from scratch.

Lets get back to real issues, shall we?

How long before those 29 Perry-class ships in active commission or active reserve status are decommissioned? The best bet is the navy will retire every single one of them next year. USS Peleliu (LHA 5) will be retired immediately. USS Cleveland (LPD 7), USS Denver (LPD 9), and USS Ponce (LPD 15) will all be retired immediately. USS Blue Ridge (LCC 19) and USS Mount Whitney (LCC 20) will both be retired immediately. All of the coastal patrol ships will be retired immediately. Those 10,000 sailors will be the tip of the iceberg in terms of pink slips.

Will the navy also retire the first 8 Ticonderoga-class cruisers because they lack the radar for BMD? Maybe. Will the navy move all of the MCMs into reserve status immediately? Maybe. The F-35C will likely be immediately canceled. The impact to the Military Sealift Command won't be pretty, and those submarine tenders, among other MSC vessels, will be retirement targets.

I honestly have no idea how the Marine Corps will deal with the cut. I can only speculate that there will almost certainly be no new medium vehicle nor an AAV replacement. The F-35B likely would survive, as would the Osprey and H-1 upgrades. The AV-1Bs would likely be retired immediately though, and the CH-53K would be pushed back indefinitely.

Think folks, think. The navy will do what they have always done when budget cuts come - they will retire old ships quickly and throw everything they can towards building new ships. The LCS is one of the safest shipbuilding programs the navy has, because it has known costs with fixed price contracts. There is ZERO possibility of a new frigate of any kind in this fiscal environment unless the navy decides to drop the DDG-51 Flight IIIs, and Congress will absolutely insist the navy protects the shipbuilding budget so the nation doesn't drop below five major shipyards. Surface ship and aviation maintenance will suffer, as it always does in lean fiscal times, and deployments will drop significantly - as will training.

These silly discussions on LCS are a distraction, because they aren't rooted in either the history of how the navy deals with budget crisis or the realities of where the navy is today. For all those folks who don't like the LCS, I'd suggest you find something to like or suggest affordable ideas to make it better, because the cold truth is those 20 LCS are likely to make up a significant percentage of the entire US Navy surface fleet by the time they are commissioned. If the navy does in fact build 55 of them, as some still foolishly suggest, the LCS could represent 40% of the entire surface force by 2025. The only way that changes is if you have several hundred billion dollars laying around for the navy over the next several years, and my guess is you do not.

The American taxpayer doesn't understand the value of seapower to them. That indifference by the American taxpayer who doesn't believe the navy underwrites and secures the economic vitality of the world’s only superpower represents an existential threat to the US Navy today - and there is no evidence that US Navy leadership understands this. Specific programs in the navy are not the problem, they are a symptom of a much bigger problem that likely won't be realized or effectively addressed until it is far too late.