Monday, August 15, 2022

The Case for American Shipbuilding

To build the Navy we need, the one thing we have to get right is - and this seems obvious - to successfully build ships. A lot of them.

Easy to type, hard to do.  While we have had many well-documented troubles this century, we also have some notable successes that give hope we can do it right when we want to.

Returning today with another top-shelf guest post, Bryan McGrath picks up the conversation with a reminder of what we did get right, and what we need to do with that institutional capital.

Bryan, over to you.

When a “Murderers Row” of Navalists (Hendrix, Salamander, Work) all take to the interwebs within the same week to opine on the recent pathologies of American naval shipbuilding, one is forced to take note. As I toil and scribble in the same lanes as these fellows, I feel called to add my thoughts to the mix, some of which track well with theirs, some of which are not well-aligned, and some of which touch on issues their essays chose not to address. Their flurry of essays provides occasion to reflect upon the state of naval shipbuilding in the United States. With China’s naval expansion proceeding at an alarming pace and multiple studies converging on the finding that the U.S. Navy is too small, America must build more warships. This need is complicated by recent, well-documented descriptions of delays, cost overruns, and technical failures, raising questions about whether the United States is up to the task. This essay asserts that it is, but only if tough lessons are implemented, sufficient resources are applied, common sense is embraced, and political will is demonstrated. Some of this my esteemed colleagues touch on, some they do not. 

The Acquisition Kluge

The first thing to consider before we bend any steel or take to the computer-aided design software is that the acquisition of Navy warships exists within a complicated cauldron of interlocking systems and stakeholders to include executive branch policy making, legislative branch resourcing, Department of Defense/Navy budgetary prioritization and strategy-making, and industrial base concerns, to name only a few. There are no silver bullets, there are no magic beans. The act of acquiring warships is hard, and countless trade-offs among and within these systems are a feature, not a bug. 

This complex kluge creates numerous perverse incentives among the stakeholders. At the national level, we are unable to make coherent grand strategy, and so what kind of and how big a Navy we need devolves to slight deviations from the Navy we have, even when that Navy is patently insufficient. When the Navy does seek to develop a new class of ship, it consistently understates both the cost of the first in class and the life-cycle costs that it will incur. Why? Because everyone involved has an interest in keeping “sticker shock” from derailing the acquisition, including Congress. Better to get the program up and operating and ask for more money later than to drive away interest in a program due to its expense. 

Compounding this kabuki is the problem of immature designs, and much of the blame here belongs in the Pentagon. Whether one points to Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld’s “transformational” edicts to both the FORD Class CVN program and the DDX program (now the DDG 1000) resulting in the parallel integration of numerous immature technologies, or the similarly “transformational” decision to provide potential LCS vendors with “performance specifications” rather than “design specifications” (resulting in brittle supply chains and the introduction of one-of-a-kind and unproven technology in main propulsion 


and combat systems), the pathologies of all three programs (CVN, DDG 1000, and LCS) are in part the result of immature designs incorporating unready, untested, and unsupported technology. Additionally, as part of the post-Cold War move to favor “efficiency” (over effectiveness), the Navy’s own technical community was dramatically down-sized, resulting in a situation in which it attempted—under pressure from OSD and from its own questionable decision-making—to oversee the development of increasingly complex warships with unfamiliar technology utilizing a workforce that was not up to the task. This was a recipe for failure, and three ship classes suffered as a result. 

Is All the News Bad?

Reading the thoughts of my friends Jerry Hendrix, Bob Work, and Commander Salamander on the turmoil in naval shipbuilding of the past two decades provides a depressing but incomplete picture of the status of American warship building. The United States is at this moment, building several classes of ships that are the envy of the world-- effectively and efficiently--to include the VIRGINIA Class attack submarine, the ARLEIGH BURKE Class destroyer, and two classes of large amphibious ships (LPD and LHA). The Navy and the Congress possess such confidence in these ships that they are routinely acquired in batches, rather than with individual contracts for each hull. What is the difference in these ships and the three (CVN, DDG 1000, LCS) discussed earlier?

The simple answer is that they are mature programs with generally stable designs. The ship pictured below at its recent commissioning ceremony--USS FORT LAUDERDALE (LPD 28)—is the beneficiary of years of construction experience and what the industry calls “learning”. More efficient processes are created, early design problems are overcome, and real costs decline the longer a production line remains open. The VIRGINIA Class SSN, DDG 51 class, and the LPD 17 class all had early problems to overcome, but the Navy and the shipyards—with considerable oversight from Congress—worked those problems out and put the programs on a steady course. As of this writing, it appears that similar conditions are prevailing in the construction of follow-on FORD Class CVN’s. 

The point here is that America CAN build ships; it builds GREAT ships. But given the pace of China’s Navy buildup and the considerable number of new and newly modernized ships in the pipeline, how can the Navy and other stakeholders in the acquisition process behave differently to achieve positive results earlier rather than later?

What Is to Be Done?

In his recent guidance to the Navy’s Surface Forces called “The Competitive Edge”, VADM Roy Kitchener USN (Commander U.S. Naval Forces) identified ten “new or modernized platforms” that will join the fleet or be in construction over the next ten years. Those platforms are: 

  • ZUMWALT-Class Destroyers (DDG 1000) with Conventional Prompt Strike (CPS)
  • ARLEIGH BURKE Class Guided Missile Destroyers (Flight III)
  • ARLEIGH BURKE Class Guided Missile Destroyers (Flight IIA Modernization)
  • LCS Lethality and Survivability Upgrade
  • CONSTELLATION-Class Guided Missile Frigate (FFG 62)
  • Light Amphibious Warship (LAW)
  • Medium Unmanned Surface Vessels (MUSV)
  • Large Unmanned Surface Vessels (LUSV)
  • SAN ANTONIO Class Amphibious Transport Dock (LPD 17 Flight II)
  • Next Generation Guided Missile Destroyers (DDG (X))

This is a considerable amount of complexity entering the fleet in the next decade, and unless lessons from the past twenty years of frustration are implemented among all the various stakeholders, that frustration will continue. Here are several suggested focus areas:

Design Maturity. Civilian and uniformed leadership of the Navy should be required by Congress to certify design maturity and maturity of new technologies prior to proceeding to construction. Concurrency must be avoided at all costs, and new capabilities should be developed and proven in land-based test facilities PRIOR to introduction. Exceptions would include corrections of obvious mistakes, and changes to ships that are built at wider intervals (like aircraft carriers and amphibious assault ships). Of note, well into the Biden Administration’s second year, the Navy does not have a Senate confirmed Assistant Secretary for Research, Development, and Acquisition (ASN RDA), nor has one been nominated. 

Additionally, Congress must play a constructive role here by providing funding for design and testing to support Navy acquisition timelines and for additional land-based test capacity (an unsung Congressional achievement of late). These funds are often harvested and re-applied elsewhere, which causes acquisition delays (at best) and at worst—contributes to design immaturity as the Navy rushes to meet production schedules. The best of all cases from a Congressional oversight standpoint is to provide the design and testing resources when they are requested but to relentlessly hold the line on construction until satisfied of design and technology maturity. Long lead-time material must be closely managed to ensure availability.  

Requirements Discipline. When and if this country becomes serious enough about force structure to seat a Senate-confirmed official at ASN RDA, that individual must be utterly ruthless in shooting down the good idea fairy, even if that fairy appears in khaki with several stars on the collar. Multiple iterations of mature designs should be constructed to reap pricing benefits, with (as stated above) changes and capabilities proved and binned awaiting a new “tranche” of ships into which they will be integrated. 

A Virtuous Cycle of Stability and Investment. There is, within the latest Navy 30 Year Shipbuilding Plan, discussion of industrial base concerns in both the surface and submarine shipbuilding narratives, with no less an authority than the CNO casting doubt. Building multiple VIRGINIA Class SSN’s and the COLUMBIA Class SSBN simultaneously will surely flex the submarine industrial base, but the suggestion that there is not additional capacity in the surface industrial base is misplaced (although skilled workforce issues impact shipbuilding as much as most other industrial concerns). Where there are serious problems is within the supply chain, as tier 2 and 3 suppliers exit their businesses in response to inconsistent demand signals from the Navy. This inconsistency is important to the entire industry, as publicly held businesses must answer to shareholders who would (rightly) question capital investments driven by the behavior of their monopsonic partner. 

Leverage Hot Production Lines. Both tier 1 shipyards (HII and Bath Iron Works) are transitioning to the Flight III DDG line of ARLEIGH BURKE Destroyers—HII from building Flight II’s, and BIW from building DDG 1000’s.  The first hull at HII is nearing completion, and the first at BIW is under construction. Hot production lines also exist in the LPD 17 program and the LHA program. The Navy should plan to and budget for AT LEAST 2 SSN’s a year (in addition to the required SSBN program), 2 large surface combatants a year, 1 LPD 17 every other year, 1 LHA every four years and 1 CVN every five years. 


For those hearkening back to paragraph three where I stated “…what kind of and how big a Navy we need devolves to slight deviations from the Navy we have…”, be advised that what I suggest above is just a part—a large part, but just a part—of the building program we need. We (the kluge cited earlier) have dithered long enough on unmanned platforms on and under the ocean, and the dearth of new Medium USV acquisitions in the President’s FY23 budget is concerning. A third of the 2045 fleet is to be unmanned, and if we hope to get there, we need to start bending metal, much of which will be done at more modestly sized yards. And then there is the new frigate. 

Compete the CONSTELLATION Class As Soon As Possible. It is difficult to see in the Navy’s plans a desire to bring on a second yard to build the CONSTELLATION Class frigate any time soon. Whether this is an architecture decision, a resource decision, or a risk decision is not known to me, but it is logical to assume that if the Navy is to grow larger in the coming years, more of these ships must be built. The design chosen by the Navy—while based upon a successful European hull—is considerably different from the parent design, in no small measure due to requirements for survivability driven by NAVSEA. Those requirements are often seen as onerous, but one important fact distinguishes STARK, SAMUEL B ROBERTS, PRINCETON, TRIPOLI, MCCAIN, and FITZGERALD from MOSKVA, and that is that only one of these ships went to the bottom. That the yard chosen to build CONSTELLATION has never built a ship of this size and complexity before is even more reason to expeditiously compete the design among the other building yards, both to get to at least four hulls per year and a means of backstopping production risk. Some would caution against this path, citing the need for the Navy and its shipbuilding partner to “learn” from the first hull. While there is indeed learning to be done, there is precedent worth considering in the transition from building CG 47’s to DDG 51’s. Bath Iron Works won the contract for the ARLEIGH BURKE, and Ingalls began construction on BARRY two years after ARLEIGH BURKE construction began, with the yards competing on hulls and multi-year procurements ever since. 

Like I said earlier, shipbuilding is hard. But it is harder when costs are consistently and predictably under-estimated (I’m no math major, but there seems to be a fudge factor suggested here), when the key policy and oversight positions are not filled, when construction begins before plans are ready, when considerable changes are made from hull to hull without discipline and testing, and when there are dramatic swings in shipbuilding plans that frustrate coherent capital investing. 

The nation needs a larger Navy; it needs more of the same and it needs more of different. It needs capacity and capability. It needs more, and more predictable resources. More than anything else though, it needs this country’s national security decision making elite to walk away from any notion that the Navy the nation needs can be had on the cheap, that other instruments of government can make up for what the Navy does every day around the world, and that we can “technology” our way out of the seapower deficit we are in. Winter is coming.

Bryan McGrath is the Managing Director of The FerryBridge Group LLC. He has clients in government and industry. His public writing and speaking represents his own opinions. 

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