When the Navy released their FY2013 budget earlier this year, the reason cited for not providing a shipbuilding plan with the budget was a Force Structure Analysis being conducted by the Department. The FSA is basically a classified review of the force structure, and it was expected at the time that the FSA and shipbuilding plan would be released together. By late March, Congress was getting restless and wanted to see a shipbuilding plan, but the FSA was not finished. March was hearing season on the Hill and a shipbuilding plan was needed. The shipbuilding plan was released in late March prior to the late March hearings with Congress.
As the Secretary noted in his written testimony, the"new FSA will consider the types of ships included in the final ship count based on changes in mission, requirements, deployment status, or capabilities. For example, classes of ships previously not part of the Battle Force such as AFSBs developed to support SOF/non-traditional missions, Patrol Combatant craft forward deployed to areas requiring that capability, and COMFORT Class Hospital Ships deployed to provide humanitarian assistance, an expanded core Navy mission, may be counted as primary mission platforms." Basically, the Navy is conducting a review of counting rules that will determine what ships are counted as Battle Force ships.
This is nothing new. Under Reagan, Secretary John Lehman counted every grey hull that floated in his attempt to build a 600 ship Navy, and if the Navy used Lehman's counting rules today, the ship types that counted towards the 568 Battle Force ships in 1987 would give the Navy well over 300 ships today if the same ship types were counted. Thirtyish years later, the Navy is conducting another review of the counting rules - reasonable.
After returning from Washington DC last week, I began breaking down the Navy's new 300-ship shipbuilding plan in detail. Leveraging the new shipbuilding plan, CRS reports on the Navy's new and old shipbuilding plan, and the Navy's FY13 budget I kept coming across what I would describe as anomalies when trying to add up the small surface combatant line. What I decided to do was go to the FY19 line, because in FY19 there will be only 1 FFG-51 left in the Battle Force, and using the Navy SCN budget book I was able to determine there were going to be 25 Littoral Combat Ships commissioned by that fiscal year.
Well, if there are 25 Littoral Combat Ships and only one Perry class left, and the new Navy 300 ship shipbuilding plan has 39 small surface combatants in FY19 - I started trying to figure out where the other 13 small surface combatants are. At first I thought maybe they were the MCMs, so I went to Ronald O'Rourke's report Navy Force Structure and Shipbuilding Plans: Background and Issues for Congress dated March 30 which reflects the new Navy shipbuilding plan. As is historically custom, Ron lists Dedicated mine warfare ships as it's own ship type to be counted, but nowhere is there any mention of MCMs in the report - indeed the report lists the plan as having zero MCMs. Because mine ships have historically always been counted in their own category, and Ron didn't list them, I presumed the Navy wasn't counting them. Plus, there are 14 MCMs, not 13. The only small surface combatant class in the Navy that numbers 13 is the PCs.
It was about that point I realized the FSA and shipbuilding plan were supposed to be released together - but were not - and presumed that in the madness of getting the shipbuilding plan out the door the Navy added the PCs in the plan they released.
This is what Bob Work kindly forwarded to me on this subject before he got up on stage at SAS on Wednesday.
39 SSCS IN FY2019 INCLUDE 1 FF, 25 LCS, 13 MCM. WE USED TO COUNT MINE WARFARE VESSELS SEPARATELY. BUT SINCE LCS IS REPLACING FFS, PCS, AND MCMS, WE COUNT THEM IN THIS LINE.13 MCMs in FY19? Guess that means the Navy is retiring the MCMs immediately after Increment 3 of the LCS MIW module comes online. I also suppose my waterfall from FY13-FY20 regarding is off by one MCM decom somewhere...
33 SUPPORT SHIPS INCLUDE 2 LCC, 2 AS, 4 T-ARS, 4 T-ATF, 5 T-AGOS, 10 JHSV, 2 MLP, 2 AFSB, 2 TAKE IN MPSRON. WE COUNT ALL MLP, AFSB, AND TAKE IN MPSRON AS FLEET SUPPORT ASSETS, SINCE THAT IS HOW WE WILL EMPLOY THEM.
Now, why would I suggest there is a shell game taking place with ship numbers? Well, here was the working theory, and I'll let you decide if I'm right or wrong on this - and we'll all know one way or the other as it plays out this year.
According to the 300 ship plan, in Fiscal Year 2013 the Navy expects to have 285 Battle Force Ships, but that number will fall from FY14-FY16 because the Perry's are going to retire faster than the Littoral Combat Ships come online, but by FY17 the Navy will be bounce back to 285 Battle Force ships.
So what happens if the FSA comes back and says add in the PCs and T-AHs? The Navy is also working hard to try to save some of their Cruisers being retired, and Congress is working hard to save the ships up for early retirement as well. What happens if just 2of the 4 Cruisers scheduled for FY13 decommissioning are saved?
Well, there are 282 Battle Force ships in the Navy today and when USS Mississippi is commissioned in June, the Navy will have 283 Battle Force ships. If in mid-June the Navy was to complete the FSA and announce changes like adding the 13 PCs, suddenly the Navy has 296 ships. If the Navy also added a pair of hospital ships, suddenly the Navy has 298 ships. If the Navy finds a way to save at least 2 cruisers from the FY13 budget axe, the Navy will suddenly have a 300 ship Navy by next year.
The PCs are rapidly approaching end of life though, so they may have only a decade or less of life left in them, meaning those 10 Battle Force PCs will only boost ship numbers for a limited time in the shipbuilding plan, if boosting ship numbers is the objective of the exercise.
But what if boosting ship numbers in the shipbuilding plan is not the objective of converting a PC with a limited life left in it to a Battle Force ship? Well, wouldn't that suggest this isn't about politics? If it isn't about politics, then why bother because the PCs are near end of life despite a bit of investment this year? When you start going down that road, one might wonder if there is some serious consideration regarding a replacement for the PC that isn't named LCS. Is a PC(X) program perhaps being legitimately considered by the Navy? Not on Admiral Roughead's watch... but he's gone. It couldn't be, could it... this has to be about the politics of ship numbers, right? There must be a reason, and I look forward to learning what it is.
The scenario of achieving a 300 ship Navy by next year, or some variation of it, is what I believe I am watching unfold, and it really is remarkably clever during an election year I might add. For the record, there are no PCs and T-AHs in the 300 ship shipbuilding plan, so I was wrong when I suggested otherwise.
But am I wrong for suspecting and/or suggesting there might be a shell game afoot? I'll let you decide.