Why the Navy needs more than just more ships

30 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

End of era: Navy retires the USS Simpson, last modern ship to sink an enemy vessel.

As the Navy closes in on its 240th birthday, it has reached a milestone: Only one ship remaining in its fleet has ever sunk an enemy vessel—and it’s the USS Constitution, which earned the nickname “Old Ironsides” for withstanding British bombardment during the War of 1812. The USS Constitution’s crew noted the detail on its Facebook page Tuesday, underscoring how uncommon major encounters are between navies in the 21st century. The only other remaining Navy ship to sink an enemy vessel was the USS Simpson, an Oliver Hazard Perry-class guided missile frigate that was decommissioned Tuesday.

Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO turned Republican presidential hopeful, has gotten oddly specific about what size military she believes the US needs: 50 Army brigade combat teams, 36 Marine battalions, and a 350-ship Navy combat fleet (not counting support ships, hospital ships, and cargo carriers). After 30 years of service — including an April 1988 battle when it fired missiles at and sunk an Iranian oil platform and an Iranian Navy vessel — the ship’s service came to an end Tuesday with a ceremony at Mayport Naval Station. The Simpson is best known for combining with the USS Wainwright, a cruiser, and the USS Bagley, a frigate, to destroy an oil rig used as a Iranian surveillance post and the Iranian patrol boat Joshan in Operation Praying Mantis. About 90 percent of the Simpson’s final crew will face new assignments in Jacksonville, according to the ship’s last commanding officer, Commander Casey Roskelly. “I love being out at sea,” he said. “You get into the rhythm, the routine. Fiorina didn’t come up with those numbers on her own—they closely matched numbers from a report on military readiness from the Heritage Foundation, the conservative think-tank, and numbers that Mitt Romney proposed during his campaign four years ago. “350 is not a crazy number,” Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution specializing in defense and foreign policy issues, told Ars. “It’s not the number I endorse, but it’s not crazy, with all the tasks being assigned [the Navy].

Even in the late Bush and Obama years, we’ve seen a goal of 335 ships.” And the last president to have a fleet of 350 ships was Bill Clinton, who O’Hanlon said “was not an uber-hawk.” The numbers, while appearing to be part of a detailed plan, don’t mean much alone. As noted in this earlier Checkpoint piece, the United States destroyed numerous sea bases and other ships in the attack, wiping out half the Iranian navy, Navy admirals assessed at the time. But even meeting the much-less-specific call for military spending that Donald Trump made from the deck of the USS Iowa recently (“We’re gonna make our military so big and so strong and so great and it will be so powerful that I don’t think we’re ever going to have to use it [because] nobody’s gonna mess with us”) requires an understanding of what exactly “strong” is supposed to mean. Navy ships have been buzzed by aircraft on numerous occasions, and China has expressed concern this year about U.S. naval operations in the South China Sea. While consumer and business technology has grown in capability exponentially, while getting less expensive over the past three decades, military technology seems to get more and more expensive—even when defense contractors draw on commercial off-the-shelf technology.

That’s particularly true of the Navy, which has been shrinking in size since the first President Bush declared a “peace dividend” at the end of the Cold War. As of today, the US Navy has 272 ships active in the fleet—the smallest overall since 1916. “In the 1980s, we almost reached 600 ships,” said Eric Wertheim, author of the Naval Institute Guide to Combat Fleets of the World. That’s not to say that the Navy is in danger of being outclassed any time soon. “Our Navy, when you count gross tonnage, is still more powerful than any Navy in the world,” said O’Hanlon. “We have large deck amphibious ships and air craft carriers that other countries don’t. Because of the ship’s smaller size — manned by about 230 sailors — sailors had to be able to do each others’ jobs, and they got to know each other well. “You spend more time with these sailors than you do with your own family,” said Roskelly, who married a year-and-a-half ago, not long before another deployment. Even with reduced maintenance schedules, “ships now deploy for eight months or longer now instead of six,” said O’Hanlon, and repairs are put off so the ships stay available.

In the bridge, where the 8-million-pound ship is steered by a 3-inch wheel, one sailor scrawled a parting message on a radar screen. “I don’t love you,” it said. The decommission crew had to ensure the ship was water-tight before it could be towed to Philadelphia for a sale and a potential future life in another nation’s navy. He died 51 years ago, but his son Rodger Whitten Simpson Jr. said he was glad to see the Navy continuing to change and to commission new ships ready for modern war.

As the service tried to fund its new ships, the Navy permanently reduced the number of ships already to save tens of millions of dollars per ship on operations while spending billions on a smaller number of ships that would, in theory, operate less expensively longterm. “People don’t realize that one of the biggest costs of any ship is its crew,” said O’Hanlon. So how large a fleet the US can sustain will in part be driven by “how manpower-efficient the ships are.” The Littoral Combat Ship and the Zumwalt (DDG-1000) class ships were designed with the idea of improving manpower efficiency—requiring a fraction of the crew required for the ships they are intended to replace. On the LCS, for example, the Officer of the Deck (the officer in charge of directing the movement of the ship on a watch team) actually “flies” the ship personally from a cockpit-like console; older ships require two enlisted watch standers to steer and signal orders to the engine room at the OOD’s commands. Other countries have been doing things that aren’t desirable from our point of view, and we need more capability in the Pacific than we’ve had,” O’Hanlon said. “So having a larger navy in that area would be a minimal requirement… we would like to increase the proportion of the fleet in the Pacific and actually get more presence there.” Many of the current demands on the fleet (including humanitarian operations and simply projecting a presence in areas around the world) could be conducted by relatively less expensive ships like the LCS and the Joint High Speed Vessel (JHSV) ships now being built. The JHSVs, based largely on commercial long-range ferry designs, are capable of carrying company-size Army or Marine Corps units and supporting transport helicopters.

The LCS ships were originally supposed to cost just $220 million to build, though there were substantial cost overruns, and the LCS class is now going through a redesign to make it more frigate-like in firepower. But “you could build 20 LCS with what it costs to build one aircraft carrier,” O’Hanlon said. “The Navy could change the configuration of its fleet and get to 350 fairly easily.” The problem faced in arriving at what size the fleet should be, however, isn’t just about stopping its shrinkage. You have to make sure that your ship building plan supports whatever the strategy is, and not the other way around.” The risk of not doing anything, Wertheim added, is that “you lose the ability of allies to count on us and let other navies fill that vacuum.

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