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Build More Ships, But Not New Designs: CNO Richardson On McCain Plan

Posted by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. on


Huntington Ingalls photo

Launch of the destroyer USS Finn (DDG 113)

CLARIFIED w/ CNO response WASHINGTON: The Navy wants a 355-ship fleet. Can US shipyards build it? Yes, they can, the Navy leaders are insisting. But, the Chief of Naval Operations warned this morning, to keep production swift and steady, we should be careful about replacing existing designs — including the Littoral Combat Ship — with all-new warships as proposed by the Senate Armed Services chairman, John McCain.

[Navy officials who saw the original version of this story took pains to emphasize that were was “zero disagreement” between the CNO and the Senator. By our estimate, that’s 90 percent true: Adm. Richardson welcomes the vast majority of recommendations in McCain’s white paper, which reflect a widely held desire to build up defense — but, significantly, the admiral demurred on some of McCain’s more idiosyncratic ideas about the future fleet].

Navy photo

Adm. John Richardson

“Time matters and numbers matter,” Adm. John Richardson, the CNO, told reporters after a public talk hosted by DefenseOne. “LCS has got to compete (with alternatives) in my mind, but time is an element of that competition. We just can’t stop building stuff.” [In other words, LCS is a relatively new design that’s still striving to prove its worth and find its place in the fleet, but the fact that it’s in production is in itself an advantage over a hypothetical replacement that would take years to design, test, and build.]

In a white paper released Monday, McCain — a harsh critic of the Littoral Combat Ship — had called for cutting off LCS production this fiscal year (FY17), “buying only the minimum number of additional ships” to keep shipyards in business until a new Small Surface Combatant begins procurement “in 2022 or sooner.”

That’s a five-year gap, already enough to unnerve the Navy — and historically, new warship designs take far longer. That said, Richardson told the press, “we’ve got to challenge that assumption” that it takes decades to develop a new ship. “I don’t think it needs to take that long.”

[After much discussion of our initial story (everything not in boldface), the CNO’s spokesman, Cdr. Chris Servello, gave us this statement: “This story mischaracterizes what was said during the DefenseOne event,” Servello writes. “When asked about the future of the LCS program, Admiral Richardson said, ‘if LCS is to continue it will have to compete with new designs.’ He then went on to say as we consider new ship concepts, we need to ‘work together with industry to drive down the time it takes from design to the ship being in the water. Time (the time it takes to design and build) will be an element of future competition, including for LCS. But in the interim, we need to continue to build what is already in work.'”]

Navy photo

The “big-deck” amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA-6) is a possible alternative or complement to larger nuclear-powered aircraft carriers.

McCain, a former Navy pilot, also renewed his call for smaller aircraft carriers — perhaps derived from existing “big deck” amphibious assault ships like the America — that could more affordably supplement the nuclear-powered Nimitz and Ford classes. Here Richardson seemed somewhat more receptive: “We need to look at this… ‘high/low mix,'” he told the DefenseOne audience. “If you think about the introduction of the (F-35B variant of the Joint Strike Fighter) onto our amphib force, that might be systemically the way to get after this.” Note, however, that Richardson is talking about a new role for existing classes of ship. McCain wanted to replace big-deck amphib production with a new design for a mid-size carrier.

Richardson made sure he praised the white paper, which calls for raising defense budgets in general and increasing shipbuilding from 41 ships over the next five years to 59.  “Overall, I think we’re in terrific agreement in terms of the need for a bigger and more capable Navy,” Richardson said. “We’re in very detailed dialogue on how to get there.”

John McCain

John McCain

Of course, the details are where the devil lies. And while Richardson made clear he shared McCain’s desire for a more responsive, innovative military — “we’ve got to acquire things faster to compete in time,” the CNO said — he and other Navy leaders have made clear their preference to innovate through incremental upgrades to existing ship types, not by replacing proven designs.

“We need to be constantly looking at new approaches, new technologies, maybe even new ship classes, but as we do so, we don’t have the luxury to sort of stop,” Richards told the DefenseOne audience. (Emphasis ours). Any new design would need to be developed “in stride” alongside ongoing production of existing types, he said, then “feather(ed) in” to ensure continuous production without a gap between classes.

At least in the near term, Richardson told reporters, “we would probably just increase the rate of the ships that we’re building right now that we know we’re going to need in the future, so that’s attack submarines, DDGs (destroyers), amphibs, oilers, those sort of things.” Asked to name new capabilities, the CNO did not suggest new ships, but new drones to operate off or with ships and new networks to better connect them: “I am really interested in unmanned (systems, and) we’re doing what we can to increasingly network the fleet together.”

The USS Warner under construction in Newport News, one of the last two shipyards in the US able to build a nuclear-powered submarine.

The USS Warner under construction in Newport News, one of the last two shipyards in the US able to build a nuclear-powered submarine.

Hot Lines, Stable Designs

Building stable designs with active production lines is central to the Navy’s plan to grow to 355 ships. “if you look at the 355-ship number, and you study the ship classes (desired), the big surge is in attack submarines and large surface combatants, which today are DDG-51 (destroyers),” the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Sean Stackley, told reporters at last week’s Surface Navy Association conference. Those programs have proven themselves reliable performers both at sea and in the shipyards.

Sydney J. Freedberg Jr.

Sean Stackley, Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development, & Acquisition

From today’s fleet of 274 ships, “we’re on an irreversible path to 308 by 2021. Those ships are already in construction,” said Stackley. “To go from there to 355, virtually all those ships are currently in production, with some exceptions: Ohio Replacement, (we) just got done the Milestone B there (to move from R&D into detailed design); and then upgrades to existing platforms. So we have hot production lines that will take us to that 355-ship Navy.”

The Ohio Replacement Program — the Columbia-class nuclear missile submarine to replace aging Ohios — is a huge, expensive question mark on the Navy’s horizon. But even there, designers are striving to make the new submarine, as much as possible, into a plus-sized version of the proven Virginia attack sub. As for the Virginias themselves, the Navy is upgrading the missile tubes and will even extend the length of future hulls, but otherwise it won’t mess with the design, which builders Electric Boat and Newport News are collectively churning out at a rate of two per year. (McCain wants to double sub production to four a year, counting Columbias).

The amphibious ship USS San Antonio, LPD-17.

The amphibious ship USS San Antonio, LPD-17.

Meanwhile shipyards Bath Iron Works and Ingalls are together building two a year of the Navy’s workhorse surface warship, the DDG-51 Arleigh Burke destroyer. DDG-51 production was actually halted and then restarted after its intended replacement, the super-high-tech DDG-1000 Zumwalt class, ran aground on cost and was cut to just three ships. There are no plans to build more Zumwalts, Richardson reaffirmed today. Instead, the Navy’s future destroyer fleet will be comprised of upgraded Arleigh Burkes, a “Flight III” evolution of the current design that boasts a more powerful radar and the electrical systems to support it. (The Arleigh Burke itself began as a new hull for the Aegis combat system on the Ticonderoga cruisers, which used the hull from the older Spruance destroyers).

It’s not just destroyers: “Across the PEO (Program Executive Office) Shipbuilding portfolio, the designs are stable,” PEO-Ships chief Rear Adm. William Gallinis told the recent Surface Navy Association. That includes the Navy’s new mid-sized amphibious ship, the L(X)R class, which will be a simplified, less expensive version of its standard San Antonio LPDs. In big-deck amphibs, the Navy is actively going back to the past — and away from McCain’s vision of mini-carriers. The USS America (LHA-6) and Tripoli (LHA-7) will be the only big-decks built that sacrifice the well deck — crucial to operating landing craft — for more aviation capacity: The future LHA-8 and subsequent ships will restore the well deck. (And even the LHA-6 is a linear evolution of the older LHD class).

Navy photo

The two Littoral Combat Ship variants, LCS-1 Freedom (far) and LCS-2 Independence (near).

New & Troubled: LCS and Ford

At this point, in fact, the Navy is only introducing one new class of warship: The Ford-class aircraft carrier, which McCain has blasted for $2 billion in overruns and months in delays. While the Ford has the same outer hull as the 1960s-vintage Nimitz, it has several revolutionary new systems inside, which have repeatedly struggled in testing. Last week, the Navy announced that testing would finally be finished and the Ford delivered to the fleet in April. To save cost and complexity, future Ford-class carriers will shed some of the high-tech systems, notably the radar.

The new carrier USS Ford is afloat but still unfinished.

The new carrier USS Ford is afloat but still unfinished.

Then there’s the Littoral Combat Ship, actually two very different designs of small, light, high-speed warship: the Lockheed-Marinette Freedom class and the Austal Independence. After horrific early overruns, caused largely by major Navy design changes halfway through building the first ships, the Navy and shipbuilders finally have a handle on LCS costs. (The ship itself is still well above the original targets, but the “mission modules” that compromise most of its combat equipment have gone down).

After the initial turbulence, a multi-year block-buy contract has “brought a tremendous amount of stability into the program,” the LCS program manager, Rear Adm. John Neagley, told the Surface Navy Association, (and) “both variants have now deployed to Singapore,” giving them real-world operational experience. Future efforts focus on incremental upgrades to the current LCS designs — adding a long-range anti-ship missile and, ultimately, reconfiguring them as beefed-up frigates — rather than developing a new clean-sheet small-ship design. The program is also struggling to solve mechanical and electrical troubles that continue to plague both variants, 10 and eight years after the first two LCS were launched.

Even the vaunted Zumwalt itself suffered an embarrassingly low-tech breakdown in the Panama Canal last November. “What’s frustrated us with DDG-1000 is we’ve had lube oil coolers since Noah had an ark,” lamented Vice Adm. Thomas Moore, the head of Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA), “so what’s the cause there? We’re still really working our way through what the root causes are.”

USS Zumwalt (DDG-1000)

USS Zumwalt (DDG-1000)

With new ships like these, it’s no wonder that the Navy wants to stick with time-tested designs.

Continuous production is essential. “By virtue of maintaining these hot production lines frankly over the last eight years, our facilities are in pretty good shape,” Stackley emphasized to reporters. “In fact, if you talk to industry they’d say we are under-utilizing the facilities that we have.” Increased production will require new investments in specialized tooling, the workforce, and supply chains, he said, but it’s all entirely achievable.

The Navy needs to look at its own contracting and acquisition processes and workforce as well, said Vice Adm. Moore, speaking separately to reporters at the Surface Navy conference. “There’s a whole list of very specific things that we’re working on diligently,” he said. Moore had no desire to get out ahead of the incoming President — who has pledged a 350-ship fleet — but, he said, “we’ll be ready to talk to them when they’re ready to talk to us about it.”

What do you think?