Monday, July 6, 2020


After many years of confusion and drift after the Cold War victory, the Navy has at last provided a serious plan for its future, as requested by Congress. It re-emphasizes the national requirement for a fleet of 355+ ships, it provides a clear logic for the need, a strategy for its employment in re-establishing the command of the seas necessary to deter our adversaries and prevent war. 

It provides for the necessary budgetary action and return to competitive business policy that could make it a reality within a decade, as Congress and the president have directed. It was completed on time and provided to the Defense Department for submittal to Congress with the Defense budget.

But where is it? It never made it to Congress. It was hijacked by the Defense bureaucracy and dropped in the memory hole. Instead, the Pentagon sent Congress a budget with only five Navy combatants and two tugboats, fewer than planned by the Obama administration. 

In the 19th century, Republican President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed a retired Army colonel, Richard W. Thompson as Secretary of the Navy. Never having been on a ship, on his first official visit he expressed astonishment: “Why, the durned thing’s hollow — I always thought they were solid.” Happily, the new Secretary of the Navy Kenneth Braithwaite, has deep Navy credentials, but amazingly the Defense Department has passed him by tasking instead another former soldier to design the future fleet 

He is the new head of the infamous “Whiz Kids,” first established in the Defense secretary’s office by Robert McNamara. In recent decades, known as the “whiz fogies,” for the last 60 years they have been the imbedded career opponents of naval strategy and programs including nuclear carriers, new carrier aircraft, Aegis cruisers, the 600-ship navy and any strategy involving naval superiority. 

This team has now recommended that the Navy be forced to retire at least two carriers and not be allowed to add any more surface warships to the fleet, freezing current numbers of destroyers and cruisers and instead adding 60, as yet undesigned, unmanned surface combatants. 

Those who have not gone down to the sea in ships are not expected to understand that in war at sea, surface combatants have the greatest challenge. They must have the weapons, technology and trained sailors to fight and prevail in three dimensions against air, surface and submarine attack.

To think that such multi-dimensional capability can be operated, maintained and defended against bombs, mines, missiles, torpedoes and cyber attack, as well as being maintained and fought offensively in stormy seas and arctic snows, weeks from the nearest port, without a crew of experienced and technically trained sailors is but a silly pipe dream. Unmanned surface ships may have a future role, but not as multi-role combatants.

It is just that sort of pipe dream that was forced upon the Navy by some of these same whiz fogies in the recent past. Against Navy objections more than a dozen new not-yet-existing technologies were ordered added to new naval ships: electric catapults and arresting gear, magnetic elevators, stealth hulls, modular weapons, rail guns, guided ballistic naval guns, on and on. The results were the catastrophic fiascoes of the Ford carrier, the Zumwalt destroyer and the LCS; three floating camels designed by joint Pentagon committees, not the Navy. Here we go again.

Now once again we are seeing the rhythm of history repeating itself. Despite President Trump declaring his policy to rebuild the fleet to 355 ships, his Defense bureaucracy has completely reversed course. 

Well then, what should be the Navy’s plan to achieve a 355-ship Navy able to command the seas? It should be straightforward and affordable.

First, reverse the decision to exempt the Army and Defense agencies from paying their fair share of the Strategic Nuclear Fund, currently burdening only the Navy, Marines and Air Force. The Navy alone must take $9B from its shipbuilding account to fund the new strategic nuclear missile and its submarine.

Second, end the practice of awarding sole-source contracts to monopolies and build no more Ford class carriers and instead initiate the design of a modern version of a smaller carrier the size of the Essex or the Midway/Franklin Roosevelt, that can be built competitively in several different shipyards.

Third, proceed with the design of the new Frigate and fully fund the selection of a second source able to compete every year in production.

Fourth, build no more large amphibious ships and begin design competition for new classes of amphibs to conform to the new Navy/Marine Corps strategy.

Fifth, extend the service lives of the most modernized latest Los Angeles class attack submarines.

Sixth, with two fully capable nuclear submarine yards, pursue competing the excellent newest version of the Virginia attack submarine instead of giving each sole-source non-competitive contracts.

This program will yield immediate benefits. It is an uncomplicated program based on a valid naval strategy that will deter the axis of adversaries; China, Russia, Iran and North Korea, currently growing in strength of numbers, joint fleet exercises and adventurism. It is sound in competitive business strategy and budget austerity. It will have solid congressional support. It will leave no doubt of our continuing power to keep the peace, thus gladdening our friends and confounding our enemies.

• John Lehman was Secretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration. His latest book is “Oceans Ventured: Winning the Cold War at Sea.”

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