Admiral Warns Combat Ship Readiness in Downward Spiral
By Sandra I. Erwin
A perfect storm of shrinking budgets, inefficiency and wasteful spending threatens the Navy’s ability to deploy combat ships, a senior official warns. Of particular concern is the Navy’s fleet of 187 surface combatants, which are becoming increasingly expensive to operate and maintain.
“It’s really problematic,” said Vice Adm. Thomas Copeman, commander of naval surface forces. The fleet, he said, is woefully short of spare parts and trained crews and, as a result, the Navy’s combat readiness is in freefall.
In a keynote speech Jan. 15 at the Surface Navy Association annual symposium in Arlington, Va., Copeman painted a picture of a Navy that somehow manages to meet growing demands for ship deployments but is gradually hollowing itself out.
“We are doing the job … but we are stretched,” Copeman said.
The surface combatant fleet, which makes up 73 of the Navy’s commissioned ships, gets just 26 percent of the Navy’s depot maintenance dollars, he said. Even with a budget of nearly $50 billion for operations and maintenance, the Navy’s surface fleet for years has gutted its inventories of spare parts and saw many of its most skilled crews leave the service in a wave of pre-9/11 downsizing.
And funding will only become tighter. The Navy’s overall budget already is being reduced by $60 billion over the next five years, and there could be more cuts coming if the March 1 sequester — which would trim all military accounts by 9 percent — goes into effect.
The only way to reverse the damage is to shrink the size of the force, Copeman said. The Navy also needs to eliminate wasteful business practices, such as buying multiple pieces of equipment that do the same function. It also needs to invest more wisely in sailor training so crews are better equipped to maintain and repair ships, Copeman said.
“We have to be careful how we allocate resources in the next couple of years,” he said. “Resources are going to drop, significantly.”
The Navy needs to trade off quantity for quality, he said. “If you don't want to get hollow, you have to give up force structure, you have to.” As funding declines, he said, “We have to be very mindful of where we take budget cuts. You can't keep the same number of people, and the same number of ships, with the right amount of spare parts, of training requirements, of ammunition, and still call yourself whole. You can't do it.”
The Navy has to “make tradeoffs,” he said. “We cant' have 167 ships that don't have enough people, not enough training, not enough parts, or time to train to get ready to deploy. … If it were my choice I would give up force structure, to get whole.”
To ease the pressure on the fleet in the near term, the Navy should immediately start whittling down inventories of redundant, unneeded hardware, he said. There are too many pieces of equipment that do the same job, he lamented. The Navy, for instance, has 16 different infrared search-and-track sensors. It has five or six different gun mounts for the same ship-defense weapon. “Why can't we just have two, so they're easier to fix, and require less spares?” he asked. “I have to buy equipment that is easier to maintain, that more people know how to maintain,” he added. Simplifying the logistics supply chain should be a no-brainer, Copeman said. “You don't have to be an ops analysis guy to figure this out.”
Ship readiness also is dependent on having competent crews, and skilled maintainers are in short supply, said Copeman. The Navy has spent millions of dollars on computer-based training but those courses are provided in schoolhouses and not aboard ships. “We have to take advantage of computer based training,” he said. “It's a great value if it gets people to learn. [But] if you put a bunch of PowerPoint slides on a system that you can't access on ships at sea, that is not a successful method,” he said. “We have to make this better.”
The Navy can't afford to fund more brick-and-mortar schoolhouses, Copeman said. “We have to move training to the ship. We're going to do that in the next couple of years.”
Copeman recognized that much of today’s readiness woes was of the Navy’s own making, over years of robbing Peter to pay Paul.
“This didn't happen because someone fell asleep for a couple of weeks,” he said. “This happened over a long period of time, we have to reverse this trend, or we will not be able to have this mix of ships.”
Copeman pointed out that, ironically, the Navy has invested in sophisticated measuring tools to gauge the condition of its equipment, but that alone is not enough. “We have a very good sight picture of what's haywire in the fleet but what we don't do a good job is doing something about it. … At some point we have to make decisions.”
The Navy also must rethink what weapons it buys, Copeman suggested. Current missiles are too expensive and hard to justify for today’s threats, he said. One of the Navy’s most lethal systems, the Standard missile, is a case in point. Every surface combatant gets to fire a live missile in training, but that might have to change, said Copeman.
“We have a lot of Standard missiles … enough to train for a couple of years. But we have to figure out what we do after.” He said one option should be to shift the missile firing training to simulators. “Missiles are getting more expensive,” he said. “We can't afford for every ship out there to shoot one every cycle.”
The cost of real-world combat weapons also has to be reevaluated, he said. “I'm not sure we can afford to buy $15 million missiles to shoot down every threat that the enemy has. … It becomes an unaffordable exchange ratio.”
Under the Cold War mindset, it would be reasonable to spend $10 million on a missile that could sink a $2 billion enemy warship with one shot. “But if I have to shoot two $15 million missiles at a $2 million missile that is coming at me, and may or may not hit me, if that's the only way I have to defeat it, I'm probably not doing things right.” Copeman said. He would recommend that the Navy spend less on pricey kinetic weapons and more on rail guns and directed-energy weapons such as lasers.
Expenses have to come down, drastically, so the Navy can modernize the fleet and build more ships, he said. The Navy tends to want to build unsinkable ships that can defend themselves against any threat. But that makes ships hugely expensive and puts the size of the fleet at risk if quantities have to be reduced. “There's a magical value to numbers of ships,” he said. “We can't be out there spreading our influence if we don't have enough ships. It's a math problem more than anything else.”
Navy leaders must soon begin thinking about how to parlay current research-and-development investments into new generations of ships that are survivable but don’t break the bank, he said. The Littoral Combat Ship, despite its well-documented problems, is “central to the future force,” Copeman said. The $560 million vessel costs one-fourth of the price of an Arleigh Burke destroyer. It is a relatively small ship whose weaponry and defensive technologies are nowhere near the sophistication of Navy destroyers, but the price makes it desirable, Copeman said. “It is a ship that we can afford to buy in numbers.”
Photo Credit: Navy