Writing in the Wall Street Journal last week, former Secretary of the Navy John Lehman notes the necessity of re-building the navy after years of decline and the difficulties of doing so. Lehman:
Although all branches of the military went through budget and personnel cuts under the Obama administration, the Navy fared the worst. Today the American fleet is less than half the size it was under President Reagan. [….]
During the 1960s the fleet numbered above 800. But after the Vietnam War, the U.S. sought a “peace dividend” and ordered the Navy to do more with less. Historically, a sailor’s maximum deployment was six months away from family in any 18-month period. Today deployments stretch to nine months or longer. Skilled sailors are being worn out, and many of the best are leaving. We have too few ships on too many crucial missions. Without the funding to keep them in repair, they deploy without being combat-ready and are eventually forced into early retirement. Many of the Navy’s combat aircraft are unable to fly without awaiting parts and repair.
Of note is that the costs of replacing, refitting, or rebuilding the fleet have skyrocketed compared with recent decades. Lehman provides two case studies for comparison:
Recall the development of the Polaris nuclear-missile system in the late 1950s. The whole package—a nuclear submarine, a solid-fuel missile, an underwater launch system, a nuclear warhead and a guidance system—went from the drawing board to deployment in four years (and using slide rules). Today, according to the Defense Business Board, the average development timeline for much less complex weapons is 22.5 years.
A case in point is the Ford-class aircraft carrier. The program is two years delayed and $2.4 billion over budget. The ship was designed to include 12 new technologies, such as electric instead of steam catapults that had not yet been developed. Many of these systems don’t work after 10 years of trying, and the ship will be delivered to the Navy without fully functional radar and unable to launch or recover aircraft. Yet the defense firms involved still profit under cost-plus contracts.
The whole thing is worth a read here.
Longtime readers will know that these problems are hardly new. Writing in The American Interest in 2007, Edward Luttwak described the procurement paradox, by which a shrinking military becomes more expensive as economies of scale in production decline and ever more technologies get slapped onto legacy platforms. The solutions proposed in the same issue by Bruce Berkowitz to break the bureaucratic sclerosis in the style of Polaris remain viable because the cost disease of procurement remains largely unchanged.
As Lehman’s essay notes, there is bipartisan agreement on the need to grow the navy, and if President Trump can pass his defense hikes and end sequestration he may be able to pull it off. But given the unimpressive procurement record of the F-35, the Ford class carriers and other multi-billion dollar debacles, the Trump Administration would be wise to consider whether there’s a better way to spend the money. Lehman’s proposals would be a good start.