New Navy Ships Plan Finally Ready; On Esper’s Desk Next Week
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WASHINGTON: After nine months of delay, a new plan to build – and fund – the Navy of the future featuring several new classes of unmanned ships will land on Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s desk next week.
The proposal, which will chart the course for a fleet of more than 355 ships, has been eagerly awaited by lawmakers on Capitol Hill, who have vowed to withhold operations and maintenance funding from the DoD until Esper delivers the plan.
“We built three different future fleets,” Deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist told the Defense News conference today. “We examined the ships and Marine units we have, and those we might build by 2045,” while includes how much each fleet might cost and assessing how each wargamed against a variety of threats. The plan he’ll present to Esper “will inform our future investments and exercises and Wargaming at a higher level,” Norquist added.
Esper took control of the force planning project from the Navy in January after rejecting the Navy’s work, finding it too conservative, too slow and untethered from the budgetary realities expected in coming years.
The overall thrust of what Esper is looking for has been clear for some time: more ships, particularly small, fast ships that can avoid Chinese precision missiles while packing some serious punch, in addition to several new classes of unmanned ships to act as surveillance nodes, and afloat missile launchers.
The service has already awarded a contract for a Medium Unmanned Surface Vessel, and last week handed out contracts to several companies to study requirements for a large unmanned ship as well. The larger version is expected to be 200 feet to 300 feet long with a full load displacement of 1,000 to 2,000 tons. The idea is to use existing commercial ship designs to build low-cost, high-endurance and reconfigurable ships capable of carrying a variety of anti-ship and land-attack missiles.
There have also been suggestions that the new Navy plan could introduce a new class of lightly manned, 2,500 to 3,000-ton corvettes that could eventually replace the Littoral Combat Ships.
All this comes just as the Pentagon is about to find itself in a relative cash crunch, as modernization bills come due at the same time that budgets are projected to stay flat due in part to the nation’s ballooning national debt.
That tightening comes as Washington finds itself in a growing military competition for supremacy in the Pacific with China, which is undergoing a modernization and building boom across all it forces. The demand for ships in the Western Pacific, in particular, is increasing as tensions in the South China and Philippine seas continue to increase.
While the Peoples Liberation Army Navy currently numbers over 350 ships and counting, many of those vessels are relatively new to the fleet, and the PLA navy is still learning how to operate and fight them.
US policymakers are taking the build-up very seriously, however. Introducing the Pentagon’s latest China Military Power report last week, deputy assistant Defense secretary for China, Chad Sbragia, said Beijing “has spent the last several years completely tearing out and rewiring the PLA organizationally with the goal of transforming into a joint force that is more combat-ready, innovative and global.”
As China becomes more capable of challenging the US, the Pentagon is struggling to adjust to the reality that its post-Cold War unipolar moment as the heaviest force at sea is coming to an end. “The most destabilizing event in the 21st century is going to be when China can achieve conventional parity at a time and place of its choosing,” Maj. Gen. Tracy King, the Marine Corps’ Director of Expeditionary Warfare said recently.
The capacity for the Navy to repair ships during even a short conflict is also a big concern, which is something DoD and Navy leaders must grapple with if and when they begin growing the size of the fleet to 355 ships and beyond..
The US would be hard-pressed to repair ships quickly enough during a war, a top admiral said last month, underscoring similar concerns recently put forth by the Marine Corps in an internal document.
“We don’t have enough capacity for peacetime” repairs, let alone a wartime surge, said Rear Adm. Eric Ver Hage, commander of the Navy’s Surface Ship Maintenance and Modernization office. “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.”
The sentiment reflects that expressed in an internal Marine Corps document obtained by Breaking Defense this spring, which acknowledged that “replacing ships lost in combat will be problematic,” since the US “industrial base has shrunk while peer adversaries have expanded their shipbuilding capacity. In an extended conflict, the United States will be on the losing end of a production race.”
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