The Navy’s Problems Keep Growing as It Takes a Leading Role Against Russia and China

 In China, Defense, CIS, Forces & Capabilities, P5
  • As the Navy takes center stage in the US reori­en­ta­tion toward “great-power com­pe­ti­tion,” the ser­vice seems beset with prob­lems in its lead­er­ship and its hard­ware.
  • These issues point to a mar­itime force that was long the nation’s first line of defense but which is now beset with seri­ous and sys­temic prob­lems that need imme­di­ate atten­tion
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Last week’s crippling fire on the amphibi­ous assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard raised fur­ther ques­tions about the state of our Navy just as the Trump admin­is­tra­tion reck­less­ly careens down a path toward mar­itime con­fronta­tions with China in the South China Sea and else­where.

The fire on the Bonhomme Richard is only the latest in a series of damaging incidents that call into question the Navy's ability to take on the cen­tral role called for in the Defense Department’s pri­or­i­ty of re-ori­ent­ing the nation’s armed forces away from hunt­ing jihadists across South Asia toward focus­ing on revi­sion­ist great powers in Moscow and espe­cial­ly Beijing.

Yet the hits against those on the bridge, below decks, and through­out the head and limbs of the US Navy keep coming — just as the incon­clu­sive land wars of the last 20 years may be final­ly (and thank­ful­ly) sput­ter­ing out.

The list of Navy prob­lems of strat­e­gy, war­ships, weapons, and above all, com­mand, obe­di­ence and morale is long and seems to keep grow­ing.

Individually, each of these issues can be attrib­uted to cir­cum­stan­tial fac­tors that mean little to out­siders, but col­lec­tive­ly the sum of these issues points to a mar­itime force that was long the nation’s first line of defense but which is now beset with seri­ous and sys­temic prob­lems that need imme­di­ate atten­tion.

USS Fitzgerald damage

Navy destroyer USS Fitzgerald.
Wikimedia Commons

First there is the issue of combat effec­tive­ness at the lowest ech­e­lons of mar­itime ser­vice, the com­bi­na­tion of ships, air­craft, materiel and com­mand, obe­di­ence, dis­ci­pline, and readi­ness.

The Navy’s inves­ti­ga­tion of the fire on the Bonhomme Richard is only just begin­ning, but it’s unclear just how famil­iar the crew and the senior lead­ers were with the fire sup­pres­sion equip­ment on the ship and proper pro­ce­dures for stor­ing flam­ma­ble mate­r­i­al. Indeed, there is a long and tragic his­to­ry of dev­as­tat­ing fires on Navy ships.

Recent his­to­ry has revealed in the Navy’s inves­ti­ga­tions on acci­dents in the Pacific with the USS McCain and the USS Fitzgerald found that offi­cers on the bridges of both ships were woe­ful­ly igno­rant of basic sail­ing skills. The lack of basic com­pe­ten­cies of ship­board life in rou­tine and crisis fit within a sys­temic pat­tern of cutting corners on readiness through­out the Pacific fleet. Navy lead­ers ignored repeat­ed warn­ings from lower levels on impli­ca­tions of the decline in fleet readi­ness.

Second, the Navy has shown an alarm­ing inabil­i­ty to build and oper­ate afford­able, reli­able, and capa­ble ships. The USN just retired the first four Littoral Combat Ships after just 10 years — with one of the ships being just six years old. These ves­sels are the youngest ships ever retired from Navy ser­vice. Despite look­ing great in photo-ops due to their sleek, inno­v­a­tive appear­ance, the ships have turned out to be expen­sive pro­cure­ment dis­as­ters that never worked as adver­tised.

The Navy will aban­don this multi-bil­lion pro­gram in favor of a new frigate that is pro­ject­ed to cost over $1 bil­lion per copy, which will have one essen­tial impli­ca­tion: The Navy (and the coun­try) will not be able to afford many of them.

uss zumwalt USS Independence (LCS 2) and USS Bunker Hill

The USS Zumwalt, littoral combat ship USS Independence, right, and cruiser USS Bunker Hill.
US Navy

Then there is the multi­bil­lion-dollar USS Zumwalt guided mis­sile cruis­er that the Navy even­tu­al­ly aban­doned. It was sup­posed to be invis­i­ble to enemy radar and fire shells from sev­er­al hun­dred miles off­shore. Like the LCS, the USS Zumwalt was aban­doned because it didn’t work as adver­tised and has become an expen­sive tech­nol­o­gy demon­stra­tor plat­form of dubi­ous ser­vice and combat use­ful­ness that cost the tax­pay­ers bil­lions.

Then there is the new USS Ford-class air­craft car­ri­er pro­gram that remains mired in tech­ni­cal prob­lems and per­sis­tent cost over­runs. In early July 2020, the Navy fired the pro­gram man­ag­er for fail­ing to accom­plish what none of the other pro­gram man­agers could accom­plish: making the Ford’s advanced tech­nolo­gies suc­cess­ful­ly work togeth­er.

The litany of these failed pro­grams leaves a legacy of expen­sive break­downs in the fleet that is hardly con­fi­dence inspir­ing. These col­lec­tive fail­ures sug­gest that the Navy is simul­ta­ne­ous­ly pric­ing itself out of busi­ness as it also repeat­ed­ly demon­strates an inabil­i­ty to field inno­v­a­tive, new ships to meet 21st-cen­tu­ry mar­itime threats.

Third, the Navy has appar­ent­ly lost the civil-mil­i­tary con­fi­dence of senior Defense Department civil­ians. Earlier this spring, Defense Secretary Mark Esper held back the Navy’s 30-year ship­build­ing plan from being pro­vid­ed to Congress due to unanswered questions about the rel­e­vance of that plan to fiscal real­i­ties and the strate­gic envi­ron­ment.

While the Navy has trum­pet­ed a sought-after fleet size of 355 ships as an objec­tive, it’s not clear whether, when, or how the Navy will ever reach this pro­gram­mat­ic and strate­gic goal cen­tral to great power com­pe­ti­tion in an ever more dan­ger­ous global order.

After stand­ing on the side­lines for decades shirk­ing its over­sight role and mind­less­ly cut­ting checks for failed sys­tems, Congress has finally demanded answers from the Navy and senior Defense Department civil­ians on the Navy’s stalled mod­ern­iza­tion plans.

Navy destroyer Ramage sailors

Sailors aboard Navy destroyer USS Ramage handle mooring lines, March 26, 2020.
US Navy/MCS 1st Class Joshua D. Sheppard

The three-pronged crisis come as the Trump admin­is­tra­tion lunges toward a con­fronta­tion with China in all spec­trums of con­flict — a con­fronta­tion in which mar­itime rival­ry and con­flict form the cen­ter­piece of fric­tion between the world’s two wealth­i­est coun­tries.

The United States con­tin­ues to send Navy ships on free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion mis­sions in the South China Sea and the Strait of Taiwan. On July 14, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo force­ful­ly reit­er­at­ed that the United States regards China’s claims to 1.3 mil­lion square miles in the South China Sea as ille­gal under inter­na­tion­al law.

All these ele­ments of a per­fect storm are regret­tably con­verg­ing: A Navy in crisis on var­i­ous levels just as the Trump admin­is­tra­tion has chosen to invoke a mag­i­cal, mys­te­ri­ous, and sin­is­ter threat from China. To be sure, the ques­tion of how the world order and great powers will either stum­ble into war as in the past or find some modus viven­di in a con­fused and dam­aged world is an issue of the most fate­ful state­craft. The crisis also unfolds as too few mil­i­tary and polit­i­cal lead­ers demon­strate an under­stand­ing about war at sea and/or the use of mar­itime force as lever of geopo­lit­i­cal great power com­pe­ti­tion to pre­vent esca­la­tion in a mar­itime crisis lead­ing to gen­er­al war.

Part of the answer to this strate­gic prob­lem rests of the capac­i­ty of the US Navy on the high seas to oper­ate at all levels of con­flict in the face of actual Russian and Chinese threats. The Navy must be capa­ble both of deter­ring con­flict and secur­ing vic­to­ry at all levels of future war, as unthink­able as that may seem.

The crisis of com­mand at sea and fail­ures of naval ships and weapons found their most tan­gi­ble man­i­fes­ta­tion in the sidelin­ing of the USS Theodore Roosevelt in Guam with the scan­dal sur­round­ing Capt. Brett Crozier and now with the bil­low­ing clouds of burnt war­ship joined with the ram­pant virus in the air above San Diego.

The US gov­ern­ment and its voters should heed these sig­nals to pre­clude the danger of crisis lead­ing to major war on a scale unseen since the fall of 1950 or worse.

James Russell is an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.

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