Navy Shipbuilding Plan Falls Short in Asia-Pacific, Experts Say
By Allyson Versprille
The Navy's most recent shipbuilding plan does not meet the capability requirements that are necessary to carry out combat missions in the Asia-Pacific, experts said Oct. 20.
The Navy's fiscal year 2016 30-year shipbuilding plan calls for a total fleet goal of 308 ships. Within that number the Navy has asked for 34 amphibious ships. However, both the Navy and Marine Corps have agreed that the actual requirement is 38 vessels.
"Shipbuilding — we never get it right. … We need to start getting it right," said Marine Corps Ret. Lt. Gen. Thomas Conant, the former deputy commander of the U.S. Pacific Command during a panel discussion at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C. think tank. "If 38 ships is the requirement … in the most engaging and most hard-to-fight plan, then that's a reality. It's not just a Marine Corps requirement. It's a requirement for the nation and we ought to think about how we're going to approach that."
He noted that to address the shortfall, alternate platforms such asmaritime prepositioning ships or joint high-speed vessels could be used in place of amphibious ships in missions related to crisis response or other peaceful engagements. However, when a military professional decides he or she wants to maneuver to a combat area of responsibility (AOR) for combat operations, "then you better have your amphibious capability," he said.
"We need to have a very honest and open discussion about how we describe what we're trying to do and how we account for those platforms in the shipbuilding plan," he added. Resourcing decisions cannot allow the military to lose its advantage in a conflict against a robust adversary, he said.
Today, the Navy and Marine Corps only have 30 amphibious ships in the inventory, eight less than the stated requirement. In the Navy's 30-year plan that number never reaches the needed 38 vessels, Conant said.
Eric Labs, senior analyst for naval forces and weapons at the Congressional Budget Office, said the Navy's plan would require more funds than it has historically received in order to meet its shipbuilding goals.
The "plan outlines a shipbuilding plan that is more expensive than what the Navy has received historically each year for the past 30 years," he said. The service has received just under $16 billion. "The Navy shipbuilding plan, as projected … would look to need $19 billion to $21 billion a year every year for the next 30 years."
Another impediment to amphibious shipbuilding is its ranking on the Navy's list of priorities, he said.
"Amphibious ships are not the highest priority in the Navy or in Congress," said Labs. "New ballistic missile submarines are the Navy's highest priority by the leadership's own statements and that's going to represent a very large amount of resource demand going forward from the early 2020s into the mid-2030s."
Aircraft carriers are also a high congressional priority, he noted.
"The most recent plan … propose[s] maintaining an amphibious force that has a fiscally constrained goal of 34 ships for most years in the shipbuilding plan," he said. Both the Navy and Marine Corps agree that the required number is 38, but since the services cannot afford that number, they settled on the lesser number of 33, which was upped to 34 last year, he added.
Labs also noted that the 30 ships currently in use endure long deployments in shorter cycles. Within the past 10 years, 27-month deployment cycles with an average of about nine months of deployment have been the norm, he said.
"The Navy recognized that this cannot go on forever and will be moving the amphibious force to the optimized fleet response plan, which is a cycle of 36 months to include a seven-month deployment."
However, this new plan could reduce the military presence provided by amphibious ships in San Diego, where currently 12 such platforms are stationed, he said.
"The amount of presence provided by the ships in San Diego will fall from about four today, which is nine months out of a 27-month cycle to a little more than two ships, which is seven months out of a 36-month cycle," said Labs. "You can't maintain a second ARG [amphibious ready group] in the region with San Diego-based ships alone" in the new 36-month deployment cycle with only 30 amphibious ships.