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ANALYSIS

Hampton Roads waits for word on shipbuilding from Biden

In an October, 2020 photo, the Virginia-class submarine Montana (SSN 794) is successfully transferred from a construction facility to a floating dry dock at Newport News Shipbuilding division in preparation for its launch.

MATT HILDRETH/HII

By DAVE RESS | The Daily Press | Published: December 22, 2020

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (Tribune News Service) — It may be a while before anyone in Hampton Roads knows what the incoming Biden Administration thinks about Navy shipbuilding.

While the law says the Pentagon is required to release its 30-year plan for Navy shipbuilding with its annual budget request, usually in February, that doesn’t always happen.

It didn’t this year, when the Trump Administration’s call for a dramatic increase in spending to hit its 355-ship goal for the fleet and eventual hopes for fleet of 500 manned and unmanned vessels didn’t emerge until this month.

And it’s not unknown for a new administration, with less than a month under its belt before the deadline hits, to take a pass on issuing its plan, in order to see if the existing plan meshes with its thinking.

“We aren’t in a position to comment,” a transition team spokesman said.

He said Biden has pledged to “make the investments necessary to equip our troops for the challenges of the next century, not the last one.”

If the Trump Administration does not submit an fiscal 2021 30-year plan — the plan it released is structured more like what a 2022 plan should look like — and a Biden Administration does not submit its own 2022 plan, the nearly two-year-old plan, which reflects the current mix of ships, would govern.

“I think internally certainly we’ll have challenges again with the new administration in terms of explaining the rationale for making the investments in the naval force,” Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday told the U.S. Naval Institute’s annual defense forum earlier this month.

It’s still pretty early to get a read on Biden’s thinking — especially since “30-year plans are revised every year ... with dramatic changes in the first five years,” said Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Norfolk, a member of the House Seapower subcommittee.

That lack of consistency has become a headache for the shipbuilders and ship-repair yards that the Navy relies on, she said.

There’s also a tendency in recent plans to be over-enthusiastic about new technology, she said.

Looking back to the Obama administration may not help — Luria notes that China’s recent activities in the western Pacific and South China Sea and Russian ventures into the North Atlantic are posing new strategic challenges.

“It is difficult to speculate at this time what impacts a Biden administration’s strategic vision would have on the 30-year shipbuilding plan. There is a limited knowledge-set on what his strategic vision looks like at this time,” said Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Westmoreland, who is the ranking Republican on the seapower panel.

Submarine speed-up?

The Navy’s thinking about the next three decades has led it to push to step up the pace of construction of Virginia class submarines, which are built by a team of Newport News Shipbuilding and General Dynamics Electric Boat shipyard in Connecticut.

Newport News is taking on a larger share of this work, as Electric Boat takes a lead for the two-shipyard team in building another top DoD priority, the new Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines.

“As of now, we do not have the ability to build 3 submarines per year. Ultimately, it will require significant capital investments to build the capacity needed within the yards,” Wittman said.

Still, he added: “I have been ringing the bell on the importance of these submarines for years. ... I am heartened to see that opinions on this matter have changed.”

Questions about carriers

The Trump administration plan would maintain the nuclear carrier fleet at 11, but also floated the idea of a new type of carrier — a smaller one, and with that a possible reduction of as many as three ships from the carrier fleet, which now provide multi-billion-dollars worth of new construction and overhaul work for Newport News Shipbuilding.

Luria said she believes such smaller carriers should come in addition to the current fleet.

“It’s an and, not an either-or,” she said.

Wittman said there’s general consensus that the Navy needs 11 nuclear carriers, which should maintain the pace of work for Newport News.

“As for RCOHs [refueling and complex overhaul], not only is the demand signal for our carriers from COCOM [combat command] commanders constant, but Congress has rebuffed multiple administrations’ attempts to slow down or cancel RCOHs,” Wittman said.

The Trump Administration plan also echoes the Navy’s recent push to boost the number of smaller ships — the jargon term is “distributed maritime operations” — including frigates, as well as ships designed to bring Marines to hostile shores, and vessels that supply the fleet at sea.

“We definitely need more smaller, more nimble, less expensive ships,” Luria said.

The plan calls for a reduction in the number of large surface warships — cruisers and destroyers — although Deputy Secretary of Defense David Norquist said it called for increasing the number of destroyers.

The question of unmanned vessels

And, raising concerns already with some in Congress, the plan calls for building a large fleet of unmanned surface and submarine vessels.

Luria said she’s concerned about pushing ahead at such a fast pace with unmanned vessels when many technical issues and ideas about how such vessels would actually operate are unresolved. One challenge, for instance, is whether they could operate autonomously at sea where GPS coverage is spotty.

The Navy’s problems with cost and performance of its littoral combat ships, the new Zumwalt-class guided missile destroyers and the new catapults, arresting gear and dual-band radar for Ford class carriers ought to be cautionary tales, she said.

While the long term, 500-ship goal may be off the table, the Navy’s emphasis on smaller vessels makes the shorter-term 355 ship idea more attractive, especially in response to the threat posed by China, James Holmes, the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the U.S. Naval War College, told the Real Clear Defense news website.

“The general idea of shifting the Navy toward a more distributed force architecture that includes a smaller proportion of larger ships, a larger proportion of smaller ships, and a new third tier of large UVs [unmanned vessels] may continue, because support for this change has been developing within Navy planning for years,” Ronald O’Rourke, the Congressional Research Service’s naval affairs specialist, wrote in his review of the Trump plan.

The money question

Although shipbuilding accounts for billions of dollars in the Navy budget, money to build ships isn’t the only funding issue.

Chief of Naval Operations Gilday and other senior Pentagon officials have said it would be difficult to man 305 to 310 ships at current levels of funding.

Maintenance has been a major concern — delays in completing work in drydock has meant ships are staying longer at sea with shorter turnaround times at the end of missions, Luria said. Routine maintenance is often put off, resulting in bigger challenges that require more time in a shipyard.

“You can’t just buy it and forget about it,” Luria said. “We need to be thinking about manning, maintenance and modernizing ships.”

Making sure there are enough sailors to operate a larger number of ships is also an issue, Wittman said.

But he added, “There is a force structure change with an emphasis on smaller surface vessels rather than large surface vessels that, once looking under the hood, may not be as daunting a challenge to man.”

Still, “critical manning shortfalls that need to be addressed, particularly our problems with fit/fill. Those problems persist,” he said.

dress@dailypress.com

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