Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Politics of Fleet Constitution

I went back and reviewed the Navy Readiness Posture hearing in the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness back on March 22, 2012. The hearing was held 2 days after I wrote this blog post.

The panel included Vice Admiral William Burke, Vice Admiral Kevin McCoy, and Vice Admiral David Architzel. I have a few thoughts.

It should be noted that nobody, not Congress and not the Navy, wants to keep USS Port Royal (CG 73). Considering that the current CNO classified INSURV reports several years ago, the condition of the USS Port Royal (CG 73) has been previously concealed to Congress and the American taxpayer.

All discussions apparently focus on the remaining three FY13 cruisers and to some extent, the three FY14 cruisers also set for early retirement.

Rep. Forbes and the Navy both cited different estimates for the modernization and maintenance of the cruisers scheduled for decommissioning in the March 22 hearing, but in the hearing Admiral Burke does a great job of highlighting how the numbers are actually the same - from different point of views. Rep. Forbes cites an estimate of $592 million in FY 13 and $859 million in FY 14 to modernize the cruisers, while the Navy claims the estimate of savings for early retirement of the cruisers is over $4 billion. It looks like they are both right, and both sides are making interesting arguments.

Vice Admiral Burke and Vice Admiral McCoy's arguments are very smart. Basically what they are saying is that it will cost about $4.1 billion to modernize, maintain, and operate the cruisers through the FYDP (next 5 budget years), and the Navy number includes manpower, training, and equipment costs like the helicopters while the numbers used by Rep Forbes estimates only part of the bill for keeping the cruisers. The concern the Navy has is that just because Congress finds money for modernization and keeping the cruiser hulls, the Navy won't get the additional funding for maintenance and operations of the cruisers in the out years and thus down the road the Navy won't have the extra funding to properly maintain the ships that Congress spent just enough money to save and modernize. That partial support of the early retirement cruisers would force the Navy to maintain the cruisers at the expense of other ships in the out years, which the Navy does not want to do.

The hearing was very interesting to me to listen to the second time because this time I noted that from the opening testimony - the discussion was focused on the cruisers, which I think has been the plan from the beginning. Lets take a step back and observe objectively what is happening.

A few years ago the Obama administration drew up a new strategy for National Ballistic Missile Defense that centered on the Navy's AEGIS BMD capability. A lot of noise was made of this major change, but in terms of shipbuilding, maintenance, and modernization of naval forces capable of fielding ballistic missile defense - no plan has changed since that announcement and no additional funding for ships from the administration ever went to the Navy to take on that rather important strategic role. I think that is important, because it highlights the strategy the Navy has come up with to find more money from Congress during the tight FY13 budget season.

The Navy has put 7 cruisers up for early retirement. Keep in mind that all 7 cruisers put up for early retirement in FY13 and FY14 are capable of being modernized for ballistic missile defense (Port Royal already has BMD capability, but Port Royal is apparently a lemon). I think that is pretty remarkable, because the US Navy actually has 7 cruisers not capable of being upgraded to BMD - the baseline 3 Ticonderoga class cruisers CG 52-58 which do not have the proper radar for AEGIS BMD. In other words, despite being given a new national strategic mission in ballistic missile defense, the US Navy has put up 7 surface combatants capable of performing the BMD mission up for early retirement when in fact the Navy has 7 surface combatants not capable of performing that BMD mission. Why would the Navy do this?

It is fairly obvious to this observer that the Navy put these cruisers on the chopping block precisely because they expected Congress to swoop in and save the 6 cruisers the Navy wants to save, and allow the Navy to dump the amphibious ships and no one will care. Cruisers are shiny toys that represent power projection, and these specific cruisers have a significant future ahead of them if the money was to be found and made available for the US Navy to keep them. To big Navy, amphibious ships are dull and boring, and all they do is all the hard, unsexy stuff.

I believe it is fairly obvious Congress is doing exactly what the Navy and the Obama administration wants them to do - saving the 6 cruisers and allowing the Navy to retire USS Port Royal (CG 73), and in fact the House Republicans are saving the cruisers in exactly the way the Navy and Obama administration (by that I mean SECNAV and CNO) wants them to do it - by making it an issue the House Republicans feel ownership of and thus are able to find funding for when budgets everywhere are tight. The Obama administration is basically using Rep. Forbes and Rep. McKeon to find money and pay for the administrations ballistic missile defense policy that is otherwise neglected and unfunded by the administration. It is part of a political game, and the Republicans seem perfectly willing to be played like a political fiddle in this political game.

Meanwhile big Navy is getting exactly what they want out the game. When it came time to make budget adjustments to the FY13 FYDP, to pay for more surface combatants the Navy is moving amphibious ships to the right, and by putting up the cruisers for early decommissioning the Navy insures Congress will save them, and discard the amphibious ships (which are listed, and nobody is talking about). Whether the issue is new shipbuilding or early retirements, big Navy has framed the argument perfectly in a way that Congress focuses on saving the surface combatants while the amphibious force suffers. Meanwhile, it is the amphibious ships that are making record length deployments being further worn out, while the replacements for the ships being worn out faster are being pushed further and further to the right in the shipbuilding plan.

Apparently Congress doesn't think the short dwell time of amphibious ship sailors is a big deal, so why should the CNO care? Congress is trying to draw a line in the sand on the early retirement of the cruisers, which is exactly what the Navy and the Obama administration wants Congress to do. In my opinion, Congress needs to think for themselves and not get sucked into the political game they are being manhandled in. If the House Republicans were playing this smart politically, they would target the LSDs for saving and save USS Cowpens (CG-63) - which is the cruiser in the best condition of those listed, and let the Obama administration hang themselves with their political shenanigans. If Congress doesn't save the cruisers, it is the Obama administration that has to answer questions why they are now neglecting their own ballistic missile defense strategy. Nobody cares of course, except Congress - which is why it is a solid plan by the Obama administration.

Make no mistake, the Obama administration not only expects the House Republicans to save the cruisers, they are in full support of it - because Congress saving the cruisers is actually the Obama administrations plan. By the time the voting comes around, I fully expect broad bi-partisan support to save the cruisers, but I do not believe there would be bi-partisan support to save the amphibious ships. Why? Because that isn't the administrations plan.

The administration doesn't care how the cruisers are saved when there is no money to pay for them, because if they did they wouldn't have given that problem to the House Republicans to figure out.

I find it all fascinating. I also truly believe that if the Congress doesn't save the cruisers set for early retirement in the FY13 budget, those three cruisers set for early retirement in FY14 will suddenly find the money to survive early retirement. The Navy is only gambling as many as six cruisers because it is a safe bet that some of them will be saved. I still wonder to myself what the number of cruisers is the Navy expects to get back from Congress - in a worse case scenario - and if that number can be achieved while saving the amphibious ships.

If Congress wants to draw a line in the sand on early retirements, I hope they draw that line around the amphibious ships. The Navy will find a way to fund their major surface combatant force - and the FY13 budget itself is proof they always do. Come hell or high water, before a single cut is made to surface combatants in either shipbuilding or early retirement, observe that first the amphibious ships will be thrown overboard by big Navy until and only if/when Congress says otherwise.

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