WASHINGTON: A new class of unmanned ships proposed by the Navy as a bulwark against growing Chinese and Russian naval might is running into deep skepticism on Capitol Hill, reflecting larger and broad frustration in Congress over the Navy’s stalled modernization push.
The House Armed Services Committee voted 56-0 Wednesday night to send its version of the 2021 Pentagon policy bill to the entire House, a document which slaps restrictions on the Navy and withholds money from the Pentagon until it delivers a long-delayed Navy force structure plan.
The document also boosts Congressional oversight over the Large Unmanned Surface Vessel, an ambitious new ship the Navy hoped to begin building in 2023. The House’s skepticism over the program is shared by the Senate, which is looking to fence off money for the effort until the Navy demonstrates it understands the technologies involved.
The bipartisan consensus to force the Navy to pump the brakes on the LUSV and put pressure on the Pentagon to deliver the shipbuilding and modernization plans reflect a larger uneasiness on Capitol Hill over the Navy’s strategy and its ability to build first-in-class ships on time and on budget.
Lawmakers clearly “are frustrated by the Navy’s last decade of cost overruns on new programs, programs being late, and technology being the thing that holds them up,” Bryan Clark of the Hudson Institute says.
The HASC version of the bill takes a bold stance in defense of its own oversight, withholding billions from the Pentagon’s operations and maintenance account and prohibiting the Navy from retiring any ships until Defense Secretary Mark Esper delivers to Congress the Navy’s long-awaited force structure assessment and the 30-year shipbuilding plan, both of which he took control over in February.
Esper seized the reins after the service’s modernization plans failed to meet his expectations for a bold rethink of how the size and composition of the fleet should change. He has said he wants a larger fleet made up of smaller, faster, more agile ships, including a number of unmanned vessels, that will allow the Navy to retain its primacy in the face of growing Chinese and Russian activity from the Arctic to the South Pacific.
Those plans will be delayed until the fall, defense officials and people familiar with the effort say, when they should begin to influence the buildout of the Pentagon’s 2022 budget request.
Deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist is leading the teams tasked with reassessing the Navy’s plans.
Overall, three separate efforts were launched under Norquist’s lead, with the Navy taking another shot at its rejected plan, the Pentagon’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office working on a cost and acquisition plan, and an outside effort led by the independent Hudson Institute.
All three analyses are finished, and the Pentagon is working the numbers before embarking on a series of wargames and tabletop reviews which are expected to begin this month.
Clark, who worked on the independent report submitted by Hudson, said the deep dive on the Navy’s plans is just that. “It’s kind of going back to first principles and reevaluating the force structure requirement, instead of just turning the crank on the Navy’s analytic process, which has kind of been the way they’ve done their force structure requirement for the last few years,” he said.
The LUSV has been singled out by lawmakers because the Navy has looked to charge ahead with plans to incorporate new and untested technologies on the ship without fully vetting and testing them before the program kicks off. It’s a repeat of the same approach the service took with new classes of ships like the Littoral Combat Ship, Zumwalt destroyer, and Ford aircraft carrier, only to rack up budget overruns and endure schedules slippages caused by time-consuming fixes and about-faces.
“Congress doesn’t have much confidence in the Navy’s approach,” on new programs including the LUSV, a former senior defense official told me. “And it’s too bad because I think we as a country should be moving forward with some of these unmanned capabilities, but they’re clearly pumping the brakes on it.”
On the Senate side, an article in Proceedings — the US Naval Institute’s prestigious magazine — this week by chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Jim Inhofe, and the committee’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Jack Reed, lambasted the Pentagon for years of “absurd acquisition debacles that have set back the country tens of billions of dollars and delayed necessary weapon systems.” The senators point out the Navy has struggled to build the first ships of successive classes.
What has lawmakers concerned is the speed with which the Navy wants to move on these big unmanned ships, and the fact that the service wants to start building while they’re still developing the unique technologies like propulsion systems that will power the ships on long transits with no sailors aboard to troubleshoot or fix problems that might arise.
One of the recommendations the Hudson Institute team made was to hold off on building the LUSV until the technologies mature, potentially replacing them with a small fleet of lightly manned, 2,500 to 3,000-ton corvettes that could eventually replace the Littoral Combat Ships.
“It’s main job would be to do lower-end missions, security cooperation and maritime security and also carry around missiles that would use a missile magazine,” Clark said. “It’d be kind of on par with the LCS, meaning it’s got some missiles, but it’s not bristling with a bunch of other weapons and doesn’t have radars on board to be used for missile defense, for example. It’s really more or less an offensive missile launcher.”
Building more smaller, cheaper ships with minimal crewing would fit in with the vision that Esper has been hinting at over the past several months.
Appearing on the Hugh Hewitt radio show in late May, Esper said, “I think 355 ships is too few. I actually think we need a bigger Navy than that. I think its composition will look more different. There will be more and smaller types of surface combatants.” The Navy announced in June that it accepted its 300th ship, a marker as it continues the long, uncertain path to building up a fleet of at least 355 ships.
The absence of the 30-year shipbuilding plan and the Future Navy Force Study which will lay out a modernization strategy is weighing heavily on the Navy, especially now that planning is beginning for the 2022 budget. “The Navy needs to lay out a path for the purpose of the experimentation on the hardware side, and what is the experimentation on the doctrinal side, what are the milestones, and how are we going to move forward,” the former defense official said.
“I think that would go a long way to providing a compelling vision, and then linking that vision to a strategy. Show me how all these bits and pieces fit in within new operational concepts — this is something that the Navy hasn’t done a great job of doing in recent years.”