Modern naval problems, it turns out, look pretty much like naval problems from any time. The parameters are resources, logistics, geography, and technology.
This will be a tweet-enriched lightning round. The big punch comes at the end. It’s a doozy (and yes, I know: if I were tediously pedantic I’d spell it Duesy. Life is short).
A number of negative things are happening in a concentrated burst. One is that the Navy brass – “Big Navy” – has just proposed to whack out a big chunk of the fleet for the foreseeable future. With a target over the last half-decade of 355 ships, the Navy would decline from its current 296 ships to 280 in Fiscal Year 2027 (FY27). In the best case among three options proposed by the Navy, the fleet would recover to 299 by FY32, 10 years from now. (For in-depth reading, see here and here. The USNI article has the actual proposal document. Good background and research in the CRS study.)
Two of three options keep the ship level well short of 355 (at 316 and 327, respectively, by FY52). Option 3, the one that yields 299 ships by 2032, envisions 367 ships by FY52, but costs $75 billion more.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with rethinking the 355-ship goal or its timing. The extremely long lead-time for major system procurement in the U.S. military often means we start rethinking a lot of things before the first copy of a new system enters service.
But that’s not what this is. A key criticism of the proposal is that’s it’s less about consulting national security priorities, and balancing the projected need for a fighting force with modernization requirements, than it is about just choosing one over the other, as if real-world security concerns don’t get a vote.
Basically, the April 2022 shipbuilding proposal trades away the maintenance, operating, and continued construction costs to keep a current-ready fleet, in exchange for putting dollars into procurement for the future.
“Overall,” to quote the document, “this approach accepts risk in capacity in order to field a more capable and ready force.” It sounds harmless, written without exclamation points and emojis.
But we can equally well ask calmly, without scare-punctuation, whether the next five years are the best time to “accept risks in capacity,” for any purpose.
As I have pointed out numerous times, this proposal may or may not mean the actual uniformed admirals (and such Marine Corps generals as there are who acknowledge association with them) advocate leaving the Navy skint. Some are probably on board with that. Others are probably not.
In the end, it’s the civilians who make the decisions, which is America’s standard and the right one. When you think the military has lost its mind, check who’s wandering the halls in suits and ties, because that’s who proclaims it a priority to ferment algae for fuel rather than buy new destroyers, upgrade older ones, or pay for flight hours.
One of the big near-term hits (besides taking a major, long-forestalled loss of Ticonderoga cruisers) is found in the 2023 budget proposal: ending the San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock (LPD) ship program early, by what appears to be 10 ships.
The San Antonios are upgrades to the older amphibious transport dock ships (LPDs; Austin, Anchorage class) and dock landing ships (LSDs; Harpers Ferry, Whidbey Island class) – and they’re replacements for them. (They’re a multipurpose replacement for other capabilities phased out of the fleet 20 or more years ago, including amphibious cargo ships, or LKAs, and tank landing ships, or LSTs.)
Now the programmed slate of 13 additional San Antonios, “Flight II” of the LPD-17 class, is proposed to be zeroed out after three.
“Under the Navy’s proposal,” says Defense News, “it would buy just three of the 13 Flight IIs and then end the program, shrinking the amphibious fleet dramatically as the Whidbey Island-class dock landing ships hit the end of their service lives and are decommissioned.”
The scheduled retirement of 10 more amphibious ships from 2023 to 2026, with the loss of the additional 10 that were to be procured, amounts to cutting into bone with no near-term get-healthy margin. There’s no sinew left to cut, and we’re long past fat. Reconfiguring amphibious battle forces with less capability per package would be the obvious option, if we want to maintain a thinner semblance of current amphibious capabilities (which are down significantly already from the 1990s).
Defense News again: “The Navy and Marine Corps are conducting an amphibious warship requirements study expected to wrap up very shortly. Lt. Gen. Karsten Heckl, the deputy commandant of the Marine Corps for combat development and integration, said in January he worried the study’s final result would be based on budget limitations rather than actual need.”
“The fleet has 32 amphibious ships today, in line with what Heckl said the Marines need. …
“The decision to stop the LPD production line could drop the service to 24, at the very low end of an estimate released by the Biden administration last spring.”
Rather than remake the argument for why this is perilously shortsighted, I’ll refer you to a post I wrote years ago about the folly of dismissing amphibious capability. America has done it repeatedly and always regretted it. We are inherently a maritime expeditionary power, with no desire for empire; no one on the planet has ever needed amphibious capability to the extent we do. Having it as the core option of military engagement, and maintaining that mindset, is an indispensable pillar of our ability to project power in defense of our interests without thinking we need to occupy everything in sight.
There’s a whole lot more to say about defenestrating too much of the fleet, and we will no doubt be saying it in the coming months.
Nixing the fuel
But another untimely development looms on the horizon in Hawaii, where the only fueling station for the fleet between San Diego and Guam is to be shut down in the next year without a ready replacement.
The catalyst for the shutdown is evidence that seepage from the underground fuel tanks on Oahu has caused environmental damage and affected local residents through contaminated drinking water. The point is not whether that’s true: the evidence has been accepted, and in any case no one is invested in harming people or damaging the environment. Of course residents need to be assured they are not being sickened, nor the Hawaiian heritage being destroyed, by old fuel tanks.
But the Pacific Ocean doesn’t get smaller to accommodate our removal of logistic capability from it. This fueling capability is critical. It’s dangerous to overload everything in Guam, which is already within easy range of standoff weapons from China.
We are fortunate to have allies like Japan, Australia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Singapore. But there’s only one natural stop in the right place between the U.S. West coast and the Far Eastern theater those allies are situated in, and that’s Hawaii. Reportedly, Alaska is also being considered, but saying “Anchorage is closer” than Hawaii is misleading, since the fuel concern is for ships heading to patrol or combat areas in Southeast Asia, where the next problem spot is overwhelmingly likely to be – not ships that would be fighting further north or off the U.S. West coast. The latter can already fuel at West coast facilities. (Not incidentally, all these other shore-based fueling sources are above-ground facilities. They could be damaged irreparably by small-team sabotage raids as well as missile attacks.)
It’s a costly logistic problem to provide at-sea refueling for ships crossing the endless nautical miles of the Pacific (one we’re not prepared for in any case; more support ships would have to be procured), and in a non-permissive environment it could quickly become not just limiting but deadly.
As a peacetime problem, this one merits being solved before just about any other. In a war it would be prohibitive, sucking up far more resources than the need itself should have to.
There are “smart,” innovative long-term solutions to be envisioned, but they’re not ready on anyone’s shelf and they aren’t being urgently programmed for. (As things stand, a proposal to upgrade and make safe the existing fuel tanks was projected to take until 2051. But that’s what was nixed with the March 2022 decision to just shut the station down. An alternative proposal to put new underground tanks at a different site in Hawaii is projected to take some 40 years. Much of that time would be absorbed in studies and planning for EPA compliance.)
This is an unaddressed gap; a concern to ring alarm bells about. It has the power to cripple the U.S. Navy operationally just when it’s most needed. It must be attended to immediately.
China busts out
The promised big punch at the end is the conclusion of a security agreement between China and the Solomon Islands, which occurred last week.
The salient points are in my tweet thread. This will get bigger in the near future and no doubt necessitate more elegant map presentations.
The agreement has been previewed for some time. Its signing couldn’t come at a better time for China, or a worse time for the U.S. and our allies. China with a forward base outside the approach wickets of East Asia is a game-changer, and one we will regret allowing to emerge. This if nothing else is why we can’t wait even an hour longer to program and implement a hardened, sensible follow-on plan for Pacific refueling.
We also need to be concerned about Chinese probes in the Atlantic (see here as well; scroll down), and Central and South America. The continental United States is ill-defended along all the axes relevant to those probing points. Our defenses against fixed-wing flight coming from an arc to the east of North America are still reasonably good, but we might as well have no defense against missiles launched from the south or directly from the east, with trajectories over the Atlantic.
And China, of course, isn’t the only nation that would like to hold us at risk on these poorly defended axes. Russia and Iran, under their current leadership, would like to as well. They have the connections made already to support mounting a threat from the south – and from well beyond Cuba. Venezuela and Nicaragua would be in play as well. Without better inter-American connection-tending, Guatemala and even Honduras or El Salvador could come to pose risks. Trends in unrest and radicalism are also headed in the wrong direction in such once-stable nations as Chile and Peru.
A navy, diplomacy, and trade are much to be preferred over twilight conflict and quasi-occupations. At the moment, the three legs of that better mix for stability are all in peril on our vast maritime perimeter.
A few tweet notes on the Russian cruiser Moskva (CG/RKR-121). These are random notes prompted by information that U.S. maritime patrol and other reconnaissance flights, suspended since the invasion, had resumed over the Black Sea after Moskva sank. While she was afloat, her SA-N-6 anti-air missile threat envelope moved around the Black Sea with her; the cruiser’s presence had a real impact on everyone else’s tactical priorities and options.
The original tweet thread I was responding to also dealt with a theory that USN maritime patrol aircraft had helped Ukraine target the cruiser by tracking her acoustically, with air-dropped sonobuoys. I regard that as decisively unlikely (especially since our patrol aircraft weren’t flying over the area while Moskva was still upright with her anti-air missiles topside). But it was a fun discussion.
(Click through for full thread.)
Moskva being gone doesn’t mean surface ships can safely resume their patterns from before the invasion. Russia still has submarines, frigates, and corvettes in the Black Sea.
It does mean Russia’s ability to dominate tempo and expectations in the maritime battle space has taken a big hit. It’s important to note, however, that losing Moskva doesn’t mean losing all maritime advantage. Everything Russia needs to do in the Black Sea would be done within a relatively short range of her own coast. Coastal missiles, shore-based S-300/S-400 air defense, and shore-based aircraft – if operated proficiently in conjunction with afloat assets (the big “if”) – can be a significant advantage for a littoral nation.
For what it’s worth, in the context of the little forensic information we have about Moskva’s sinking, my rough assessment is that the biggest factor was probably a crew with comparatively poor training.
I believe the cruiser did have the drawback of a close-in air/missile defense system that wasn’t connected via modernized automation to the ship’s longer-range sensors. The defense system, based on a rapid-firing anti-aircraft gun, had its own fire control radar, but its acquisition and tracking range was short.
That said, efficient coordination between system operators on Moskva could have afforded enough time to react to the incoming anti-ship missiles (reportedly two of them) from a Ukrainian battery ashore. Since the Ukrainian “Neptun” missiles are sea-skimmers, approaching their targets at very low altitude until the final minutes, the early detection and warning problem is compounded. But Moskva should have had what she needed to cope – if the crew turned in top performance. I fear that was the deficiency that resulted in her sinking on 13 April.
However disgusting Putin’s behavior is, no one likes to see fellow mariners lost to the sea. Moskva was a good ship. Originally the lead unit of her class – the Slava – she was the flagship for the “Malta Summit” between George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev in December 1989, less than a month after the Berlin Wall was torn down. She was renamed Moskva and assigned her new pennant number after a major overhaul in the 1990s. May her lost sailors rest in peace until the sea shall give up her dead, and heaven and earth pass away.
Feature image: U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Felix Garza Jr. (Via Wikimedia Commons)