The US Navy is considering swelling its fleet as large as 581 ships, while dropping 2 carriers and 6 subs.
WASHINGTON: The Navy is losing the equivalent of 15 ships each year due to maintenance delays, the congressional watchdog GAO says, a figure that begs the service’s ability to repair and maintain the multiple dozens — or hundreds — of ships it plans to add the coming years.
The Navy is considering swelling its fleet to as large as 581 ships according to one recommendation submitted to the Pentagon as part of its effort to build a new fleet plan for the Navy. The number, developed by the Hudson Institute at Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s request, is striking considering how much the service has struggled to keep the 300 ships it has now maintained and at sea.
“The Navy is really struggling to maintain the fleet that it has today,” Diana Maurer, director for defense capabilities at the Government Accountability Office said Wednesday. It’s a struggle that “raises questions” over how the service plans to maintain a fleet that will grow markedly in the coming decades.
In order to keep that fleet at sea, there would need to be substantial growth at the Navy’s four government-owned shipyards, as well as at a variety of partnerships with private shipyards on the East and West coasts.
A GAO report released last month found a full 75 percent of the Navy’s carrier and submarine fleets are unable to make it through scheduled repairs on time, averaging 113 days late for carriers and 225 days for submarines. The report, which looked at shipyard issues between 2015 and 2019, pointed out that despite the Navy boosting its shipyard workforce by 3,800 people and spending $2.8 billion to address shipyard performance during that time period, the Navy’s struggles continue.
Appearing with Maurer at the virtual event on the Navy’s shipyard woes, Rep. Rob Wittman said he was deeply concerned about the pace of the Navy’s efforts to expand the number of repair yards in a timely manner. While the service rolled out a 20-year, $21 billion Shipyard Infrastructure Optimization Program to modernize its aging yards at Norfolk; Portsmouth; Puget Sound; and Pearl Harbor, that time frame is much too long for Wittman.
“We don’t have 20 years to do this,” Wittman, ranking member of the HASC seapower and projection forces subcommittee said. “We need to be modernizing our yards now…the upgrades need to be done at a faster pace.”
The need for faster action is being driven by the breakneck pace of Chinese naval modernization, which has seen the PLA navy already surpass its US counterpart in size.
“That creates problems for the United States, especially when it’s critically important that we have presence around the world to deter our enemies,” Wittman said. “If our ships aren’t there, that sends a signal to our adversaries about where we are with our seriousness concerning the United States Navy.”
Those concerns have led some to worry about the American response would be if the US and China fell into a shooting war, and American ships began sustaining damage.
“We don’t have enough capacity for peacetime” repairs, let alone a wartime surge, Rear Adm. Eric Ver Hage, commander of the Navy’s Regional Maintenance Center said recently. “We’re not as effective or efficient — we have so much to be proud of — but we can’t get ships delivered on time with the predictability we need today.”
It’s not clear what the navy of the future will look like because the service’s 30-year shipbuilding plan and new force structure assessment are still being debated in the Defense Secretary’s office, though they are expected to be completed soon.
Esper has said he thinks the Navy’s goal of a 355 ship fleet is too small, and he has pushed the service and the Pentagon to push for a higher number.
The Hudson Institute’s report, which Esper requested in order to provide a vision of what the future fleet should look like that came from outside the Pentagon, advocated a 581-ship fleet — including 139 unmanned surface and subsurface vessels — by 2045. The team also advocates cutting the carrier fleet from 11 to nine, while adding 27 new Light Amphibious warships for the Marine Corps, and 80 small corvettes.
While those recommendations have been submitted to the Pentagon, it’s not yet clear how much will be included in the final plan.
Whatever the size of the future fleet however, the Navy will have to build the capacity to service and repair it.