At this moment the nation’s newest and most expensive aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford, which cost $13 billion, has two of its four main turbine generators out of commission due to voltage regulators that are incapable of handling the ship’s massive 106-megawatt electrical load. Simultaneously the USS Zumwalt, the Navy’s newest stealth land attack destroyer, which cost $4.3 billion, is also sidelined, owing to saltwater intrusion into the ship’s auxiliary motor-drive oil system. These issues come on top of a series of reports that reveal that six of the first seven littoral combat ships (LCSs) currently in commission are tied to piers because of mechanical failures. The net impact for the Navy is that, in all its fleet, only one surface ship designed after 1985 is operational today. Houston, we’ve got a problem.
These new classes of ships are critical to our national defense. With newly emergent anti-access/area-denial threats, a flat defense budget, and a rapidly shrinking fleet, the Navy and the nation it protects desperately need these ships to enter the fleet rapidly and in a mechanically reliable fashion, but they are not. Instead the Ford, the Zumwalt, and both variants of the LCS have all been plagued with numerous and repetitive mechanical failures that largely surround the electrical and propulsion plants. Given that the Ford and the Zumwalt utilize a radical new electric-drive propulsion system, an electrical failure in these classes has the simultaneous effect of being a propulsion failure, an awkward relationship in a wartime environment.
When defense planners seek to justify their budget decisions to cut certain aspects of force structure or delay critical capabilities, they frame their decisions as “accepting risk” in some areas in order to prioritize a response to a threat elsewhere. The decision to allow the Navy to fall from the 520 ships it had in commission at the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 to the 272 ships it has today represented an acceptance of the risk that the nation would face significant competition at sea in the near term and that new platforms with “offsetting” capabilities would emerge to revolutionize naval warfare at sea; hence the Ford, the Zumwalt, and the Freedom and Independence classes of LCS.
However, the risks accepted a generation ago now loom large on the horizon. Both China and Russia are emerging as great-power competitors on the high seas just as the United States Navy finds itself without enough ships to provide constant naval presence in the 18 maritime regions where the nation has significant national interests. The Navy remains largely dependent on its 61 Arleigh Burke–class destroyers to maintain credible combat presence around the world. The basic design of these ships was set in 1985, when the contract was given to build them. These ships, which cost around $1.7 billion each, remain in construction today, but their cost prohibits the Navy from purchasing them in enough numbers to replace the ships that are being decommissioned because of age. This was where the LCS was to come into play, as the small, low-end, cheap platform that could be purchased in high numbers in order to get the fleet size back up above 310 ships (I believe it should be closer to 350 ships) to adequately serve the nation’s needs.
The Navy should look to other relatively cheap and reliable frigate designs, perhaps even foreign designs, for rapid introduction in U.S. shipyards.
The Navy has already decided to alter the rotational crewing plan for each LCS from three crews to two, “Blue” and “Gold” crews. This will have the effect of giving the ships more time in port for maintenance as well as providing the two crews of Sailors assigned to each more time to take valuable personal “ownership” of their platforms. In addition, the Navy intends for each LCS to be more or less dedicated to one of the three warfare-mission modules (surface, anti-submarine, and mine countermeasures) that can be installed on the ships. This will allow both crews to become more specialized as well as limiting maintenance issues that might be caused by continuous removal and installation of the various warfare systems.
McCain and Reed in their letter went further. The Navy had planned to move toward a more robust, “upgunned” frigate in the future. The senators recommend that the Navy take this step as quickly as possible. In doing so, however, I believe that the Navy should not tie itself to the current platforms under production. Their designs have proven to be far too fragile for active sea service under rough conditions. Rather the Navy should look to other relatively cheap and reliable frigate designs, perhaps even foreign designs — such as the Italian and French Fremm class, or perhaps the Dutch Absalon class — for rapid introduction in U.S. shipyards. Given the proven stability of these designs and our nation’s desire that our allies and partners purchase some of our more expensive platforms, such as the Joint Strike Fighter, perhaps it would be a wise to show reciprocity and purchase foreign designs for construction in U.S. yards.What is critical is that we continue to refine our littoral combat ships right up to the moment that we are ready to cut the new frigates into production. We simply cannot afford, with a Navy hovering at 272 ships, to cease production of these ships for even a year. Despite our addiction to high-end capabilities, we have discovered in our moment of “accepted risk” that quantity has a quality all its own and that we need to continue investing in a larger, more effective Navy. As for the problems the current ships face, we must depend, with apologies to them, on the technical ingenuity of the Navy’s chiefs and petty officers to figure out how to make these ships more reliable in both the short and the long term. This is not the first time in the history of the Navy that they will have faced such challenges, but, regrettably, never have they faced so many at one time.
— Jerry Hendrix is a retired Navy captain, former director of the Naval History and Heritage Command and a senior fellow and director of the Defense Strategies and Assessments program at the Center for a New American Security.