The internet is buzzing with Monday's impending announcement by Gates that will suggest the way ahead for the DoD. Among the rumors with credibility, the F-22 appears to be getting a reprieve from the budget hangman, while Future Combat Systems doesn't. For the Navy, it is difficult to tell, with some reports suggesting the DDG-1000 is on the list, while other reports are not specifically citing the DDG-1000. The real Navy platform mentioned as part of the rumors flying around is the aircraft carrier.
Representative Gene Taylor, a Democrat from Mississippi and chairman of a House seapower subcommittee, said questions had emerged about whether a new system for catapulting planes off the next generation of carriers would work. If it does not, the Navy would have to return to a traditional system, delaying the new carriers by a year.I think after we have beat around EMALS in the comments over the last few weeks, because nothing has emerged in the press regarding a showstopping type of problem with the system, the problem is specific to cost and schedule, not technology. There are simply too many reporters beating around on this issue for a technology problem not to be reported, so the technology itself does not appear to be the issue.
Meanwhile, he said, the Navy has been debating whether to spend $1.5 billion to refuel one of the oldest carriers. If it does not, that could lead to a temporary cut in the carriers below the 11 that Congress has required.
The way I read this, the Ford class will be delayed, and the main issues yet to be determined is the cost growth and schedule changes. Given the long term savings of EMALS, if I was the Navy I would stick with the EMALS technology and not revert to steam unless the cost growth is well over $1 billion, which it probably isn't. As Vice Adm. Barry McCullough alluded to in testimony this week, the cost savings that will be gained long term from the Ford class over the Nimitz class is significant (many, many billions over the life cycle of the aircraft carrier), not just with the aircraft carrier but also for the aircraft that won't get beat up as badly as the aircraft does with today's launching and landing technologies.
As the rumor goes, the Navy will drop to 10, potentially 9 aircraft carriers. Well, I look at such a move like this.
With the Ford almost certainly delayed beyond 2015 any case made to extend the life of USS Enterprise (CVN 65) at this point is silly. There is simply no way the nuclear fuel will last on Enterprise until the Ford is built. We just pumped nearly half a billion dollars into Enterprise to get one, maybe two more deployments out of her. If cost is the primary driver here, early retirement for Enterprise makes a lot of sense.
This would reduce the number of aircraft carriers to 10. The question is, how would the number be reduced to 9? Well, most likely it would be done by skipping the nuclear refueling of USS Abraham Lincoln’s (CVN 72), which I believe is set to begin in the 2013 time frame. If the Ford is ready by 2016, and the decision is to keep the number of aircraft carriers at 9 instead of 10, the Navy could opt to skip the refueling of the USS George Washington (CVN 73) in 2016/2017 time frame. If the Navy was to build Ford class aircraft carriers at a rate of one every 5 years, as has been suggested, the Navy could get the number of aircraft carriers back up to 10 by 2020, and the third Ford class would be in position to replace the USS Nimitz (CVN 68) by 2025. The Navy actually has a lot of flexibility in terms of how they can reduce aircraft carriers, and that would actually help with any schedule delays with the Ford class.
My point is this. I don't think we want to lose the industrial capability to build aircraft carriers. To support a fleet of 10 aircraft carriers, the national commitment is that we would build 20 per century. At this point, I think that is a very reasonable position the Navy can make a good case for with the American public and lawmakers. The advantages to a 10 carrier force are significant, while the impacts of reducing the force below 10 will become very apparent quickly.
Even at 10 aircraft carriers, the importance for the Navy to optimize the use of naval vessels for low, medium, and high intensity challenges at sea becomes important. I haven't really seen anyone discuss operational optimization of forces in the force structure debate, although a real "debate" in public on force structure with the Navy doesn't actually exist, since they don't talk about it.
As for the other platforms, lets wait and see what Gates says.
One last thought. It is valid to raise questions regarding the defense priorities of the Obama administration under Gates, and whether they are consistent or not.
For example, how is it the political position of the Obama administration to suggest Sea Basing is a priority, which I actually believe is a legitimate position driven primarily on the idea of reducing political footprints in other countries for military bases, and at the same time he administration wants to reduce the number of aircraft carriers. Think about it. The strategic argument for sea basing supports aircraft carriers, particularly as the sea basing concept evolves without the aviation centric platforms originally called for in the sea basing program. It seems there is some inconsistency in the various decisions Gates is making. There is no question Gates has been good for managing the current wars, but when it comes to force planning, we would be wise to see if the guy is consistent before he is anointed brilliance in his future force decisions.
It is entirely possible Gates has inconsistent visions for forces just like Rumsfeld did, simply based on a different set of priorities. It will be interesting to see if he is making bean counter judgments, or has a real strategic vision guiding his approach consistently to big ticket programs he intends to cut.