December 12, 2012: The U.S. Navy leadership has to deal with the fact that they cannot build and maintain the number of ships they want. Since the end of the Cold War in 1991, the American fleet has been shrinking and will continue to do so. Too many older ships are reaching the end of their useful lives (usually 30-50 years) and the likely replacements are a lot more expensive.
For example, from 2001 to 2008 the U.S. Navy lost 34 ships (11 percent of its strength) falling to 282 warships. That was despite a 51 percent increase in the navy budget (adjusting for inflation). In the last four years the budget increases kept coming but warship strength only increased by two ships (to 284). Now that the navy budget will be shrinking, the size of the fleet will fall to 230 ships in ten years and to under 200 in twenty.
The problem is the high cost of new ships. New carriers (the Ford class CVNs) go for over $10 billion each. New DDG-1000 class destroyers would cost $4 billion each but that was so expensive that the navy has gone back to building the old DDG-51 ones for $2.5 billion each. The frigate sized (3,000 ton) LCS class was supposed to cost $200 million each but that eventually went up to half a billion dollars each. Nuclear submarines are suffering similar problems. The navy has multiple problems here, including inefficient ship builders who have resisted all attempts at reform. Then there are the problems within the navy that prevent effective design of new ships and efficient supervision of the construction. There is also an inability to agree on what designs are needed and how many of them, with the result being ships with something for everyone and that no one can afford.
The navy is only getting about $12 billion a year for building new ships and to maintain a force of 240, each lasting 40 years, means building at least six new ships a year. The navy would prefer a force of 320 ships but would have to build eight a year (and have billions more each year to operate the additional vessels). The prospects are dim for even having the money to build six ships a year. Fewer CVNs might help, and that is happening simply because of the cash shortage.
All this is forcing the navy to rely more on UAVs and smart bombs, a combination that is cheaper than manned warplanes and still able to keep vast ocean areas covered. Electronics and software become more important because they are cheaper and more portable. ICBMs can be used to attack major ships and robotic mini-subs and swarms of armed UAVs can go after other surface ships. Submarines, especially diesel-electric ones, and naval mines remain major problems for the U.S. Navy. Both of these weapons were major factors in winning America’s last large-scale naval war (against Japan in the Pacific from 1941-45) and may be so again in a future Pacific war with China.
Meanwhile, the main problem the navy leadership is facing is the navy leadership.