Why No One Believes the Navy
When U.S. Navy officials tell Congress they have confidence in their shipbuilding cost projections, lawmakers don't believe them.
When flag officers say they've got enough money for maintenance, fleet sailors wonder why high-tech warships aren't combat ready.
When top admirals say they have a new maritime strategy, analysts struggle to match it with the shipbuilding plan.
When business strategies override operational needs, officers wonder if they're war fighters or executives.
Navy leaders are suffering from a credibility gap - with Congress, with industry and, increasingly, with the fleet.
In discussions with dozens of naval professionals over several months, few questioned the Navy's commitment to fielding an effective fighting force. But on a wide range of issues, the ability of Navy leaders to manage programs and explain service direction is being questioned, doubted and in some cases challenged outright.
"They need to take a hard look at themselves," one former senior officer said.
An element of denial is apparent in many service calculations, which are typically based on perfect-world scenarios to make everything come out right.
"They're constantly using optimistic cost and schedule assumptions," said Bob Work, a retired Marine Corps artillery colonel who is a top naval analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington. "This continual optimism, the continually rosy assumptions, the effort to go too fast" have so eroded the service's credibility in Congress, Work said, that House lawmakers have difficulty even listening to the Navy.
One congressional source said he can't, at times, rule out deliberate deception.
"It's more a feeling rather than specific things," the source said. "An accumulation of a lot of little things which in and of themselves are perfectly explainable, but when you add them up, it doesn't work."
Disagreement abounds on where the primary problem lies, when it began or what the key symptoms are.
Some cite the new Maritime Strategy, kicked off in spring 2006 by then-chief of naval operations (CNO) Adm. Michael Mullen and viewed by some as an indication of a naval identity crisis.
Others point to unrealistic expectations for overly ambitious shipbuilding programs. This covers both the ambitious Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program, developed under Mullen's predecessor, Adm. Vern Clark and spurred on by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's transformation movement, and the decadelong effort to produce the advanced DDG 1000 destroyer. The Navy, which has had trouble defining that ship's purpose, says each DDG-1000 will cost about $3.3 billion; but independent estimates peg the costs at $5 billion or more.
A growing number of professionals also sense a leadership vacuum, particularly at the service's top levels. Some wonder whether Mullen's advancement to the nation's top military job - chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff - has kept his successor as CNO, Adm. Gary Roughead, from more assertively taking the service's wheel.
There are reports of forceful behind-the-scenes discussions in OPNAV, the part of the Navy that reports directly to the CNO. But when Navy leaders speak in open forums, their support for programs and philosophies lacks conviction and a clear sense of purpose.
"They're not even fighting hard for their own shipbuilding plan anymore," a retired senior officer said.
Navy Secretary Donald Winter has led efforts to force shipbuilders to modernize and become more efficient, and the Hill has applauded the efforts. But Winter has made enemies among his supplier base. For the third straight year, he castigated shipbuilders at March's Navy League Sea-Air-Space Symposium in Washington for failing to control costs and boost quality.
This time, industry's groans were somewhat stifled when Northrop Grumman announced a month later that it would eat at least $320 million in charges to re-do poor work on a Navy assault ship it is building.
Navy leaders resist the notion that there are leadership issues and insist steady hands are at the wheel. But they declined requests to comment for this article.
Early last year, LCS acquisition turned from problematic to fiasco, as an ambitious plan for concurrent design and construction, a tight building schedule and a cost cap of $220 million crashed headlong into the rocks of reality. Navy officials admitted the price was going to be far higher - and that they had no real idea how high it would go.
Winter tried to force competitors Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics to switch from cost-plus contracts to a fixed-price agreement for subsequent ships, shifting the financial risk to the contractors. But both companies declined, and the second ships were canceled for both. Costs for the initial LCS ships are now forecast at around a half billion dollars each, and the building schedule for subsequent ships, still planned to number 55, has been slowed.
But lost behind the acquisition debacle is the absence of cultural preparation to allow the fleet to help develop the LCS concept - something commanders, crews and shore establishments will need years to embrace.
The ship's new features include heavy dependence on networked data, extensive use of modular weapons and sensors, an abundance of off-board vehicles requiring doctrinal development and unique maintenance, and extensive development on concepts of operations. Command structures will need to be perfected for how the core 40-man crews interact with mission-specific detachments of 15 sailors. No navy operates ships like these today, and it will take years of development, testing and training to make the new concepts function smoothly.
"They're not going to get full capability out of that puppy for 20 years," said Robbin Laird, a Washington-based defense analyst.
Recently, more thinkers are worrying how the small crews will keep the 2,800-ton ships in fighting trim, given the maintenance problems now vexing far larger crews. The 30-year fleet plan depends on keeping today's ships in service longer than originally envisioned. But recent material inspections of surface warships have revealed what some fear are fleetwide maintenance problems.
In March, a Ticonderoga-class cruiser and an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, among the world's most sophisticated ships and fitted with the Aegis combat system, were found by inspectors to be "unfit for sustained combat operations."
The Navy tied their condition to recent deployments, but the five-year-old Fleet Response Plan requires ships to remain deployable for some months after a cruise. Moreover, service leaders have long insisted that ships kept steaming after the end of a deployment would be in better condition than if they were laid up for rest and repairs.
But that's not proven true. In a message to the fleet April 18, Navy Surface Forces chief Vice Adm. D.C. Curtis said "course corrections" might be necessary to fix maintenance shortcomings.
One problem some believe needs attention: the limited hands-on training sailors now get before arriving aboard ships. Sailors in many technical ratings are learning their trade with computer-based simulations.
"There is absolutely no substitute for a wrench in a young sailor's hand," thundered the former senior officer. "You can't learn that on a computer. We are losing technical skills rapidly in the junior ranks."
Before moving on to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, then-CNO Mullen succeeded in one of his top priorities: setting a definitive number of ships for the future fleet.
The 313-ship, 30-year fleet plan - which is revised each year - emerged in February 2006, designed to quiet critics who decried the practice of Clark and previous Navy Secretary Gordon England of advocating not a specific number, but a range.
The Navy admitted the plan was not perfect. Among other problems, in order to make the number of surface combat ships add up, they had to extend the ships' planned life-spans. Arleigh Burke-class DDG 51 destroyers, for example, are now slated to sail for 40 years rather than 35. Real-life experience, however, indicates that could be costlier and more difficult than this rosy projection allows. The 14-year-old Stout, the destroyer found unfit for combat, is considered by maintenance officers to be an old ship, yet it is barely one-third of the way through its 40-year career. The other ship, the cruiser Chosin, is 17 years old and needs to remain operational for 18 more years.
"The maintenance strategy is absolutely critical to being able to execute the 313-ship, 30-year fleet plan," said the congressional source.
The service has little, if any, credibility in Congress when predicting the budget necessary to buy its future fleet. The Navy did not help its case by insisting for two years that this plan would cost an average of $15 billion a year, despite critics who said the real price would be at least $20 billion. This year the service quietly revised its estimate to $20 billion per year.
"But they never discussed that in testimony, they never offered any explanation," the congressional source declared. "That isn't incompetence; that isn't a mistake. That's sort of a willful and deliberate omission. It's not lying, but it's leaving out an evident truth."
Work said the Navy really wants many more ships - many officers still wistfully dream of the Reagan-era "600-Ship Navy" - and the unaffordability of its plan creates a culture of unrealistic optimism.
"Roughead said 313 is a 'floor' number," Work said. "The Navy wants a bigger fleet, but they're stuck with a budget of no more than about 300 ships, and the Navy has had to be extremely creative in its plan, using optimistic assumptions, ships in the out-years that never come about. Unable to convince people they need the resources to build this fleet, they're constantly using optimistic cost and schedule assumptions."
The fleet plan was meant to furnish stability, a response to shipbuilders who complained they couldn't plan if the Navy kept changing its mind each year about the number of ships it would build.
Ironically, however, the Navy completed work on its new Maritime Strategy some two years after it settled on the fleet size, reversing the logical order in which a strategy would dictate the tools needed to carry it out.
There were high hopes for the strategy when planning began in April 2006, but for the next 16 months, discussion was limited by a rigid adherence to how the strategy was being developed rather than the issues at hand, squelching open exchanges. The effort deteriorated into what some called a search for a raison d'être.
Finally unveiled last October, the completed strategy incorporated Mullen's oft-stated visions of a thousand-ship international cooperative effort, humanitarian missions and stationing of more U.S. Navy ships in foreign lands. But it added little to the debate over the Navy's roles and was criticized for avoiding discussion of what kind of fleet the Navy needs.
"It is not compelling, not tied to a force structure," said a second retired senior officer, now in industry. "So what?"
Aviation is not immune to these and related problems.
Navy leaders talk about a "fighter gap" beginning around 2016, but many listeners view this as a scare tactic, rather than a realistic prediction. Critics argue the Navy just wants to adjust its plans and buy more aircraft, or that the claim reflects internal disputes over whether to buy more F/A-18 E/F Super Hornets or the more expensive, but more modern F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
"The 'gap' is a bean-counter approach that is not putting you at the heart of strategic relevance," said Laird, a JSF advocate. "The F-18 is yesterday's aircraft."
Another issue stretching the Navy's credibility is the effort to reduce the number of helicopter models in the fleet to the MH-60 S and R models. The approach makes business sense, but the absence of medium- and heavy-lift capabilities means that many missions must be split into more individual sorties - which will wear out aircraft and air crews at a faster rate - and that cargoes that can't be broken down into smaller pieces simply can't be handled.
The Navy last year exacerbated the issue when it all but ignored congressional inquiries into the helicopter plan, annoying lawmakers who might be itching to order the service to purchase or develop heavy-lift helos.
The continued emphasis on applying business practices to fleet problems disturbs many naval professionals.
"We're not a business organization. We're war fighters," the first former senior officer said. "We're not here to waste money, but we're not here to make a profit."
Clark epitomized the MBA-admiral, the former officer said, with discussions of human capital management and other business-speak.
"All the flag officers have these titles that mirror a corporate board structure. I just want to throw up. They spend so much time trying to look and act like a board of directors," the former senior officer said. "Where's the warrior culture? We're not a board of directors, it's the Navy. It should be about standards and accomplishing the mission."
The second retired senior officer lamented today's risk-averse naval culture, and bemoaned the lack of a strong Navy leader. That should be the CNO, he said.
"But what does he think? What does he believe? Usually there's a champion, someone who picks people up from the malaise. Where's the champion?" ■