Propulsion failures plagued the Navy’s fast littoral combat ships. Because of the high cost of ammo, the gun on its stealthy destroyer is a dud. Its most recent aircraft carrier experienced issues with the system that launches aircraft. Furthermore, embarrassing photos of rusted ships on the internet have highlighted delays in maintaining warships, which have been exacerbated by the pandemic.
The Navy’s problems have resulted in delays and billions of dollars in costs. They come at a time when tensions in the South China Sea are rising, Russia’s navy is becoming more assertive, and Iranian speedboats are harassing vessels in the Persian Gulf. The Navy’s chief of naval operations, Adm. Mike Gilday, insists the service is now on a “positive trajectory,” but the service will have to rebuild confidence as it prepares a new strategic plan that will include another long-term investment: unmanned vehicles. The Biden administration is preparing a Navy budget proposal to send to lawmakers this week.
Despite a stated goal of 355 ships, the Navy fleet currently falls short of 300 ships. The Chinese navy now outnumbers the United States Navy. Democratic Sen. Jack Reed and Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe, the chairman and ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, have criticized lead ship delays and cost overruns, and urged the Navy to ensure technology is ready before putting it aboard.
Members of Congress, who control the purse strings, argue that the Navy should invest billions more in its public shipyards, which maintain the ships. According to Thompson, the Navy’s problem is that leaders rushed ambitious new ship classes into production and began construction before designs were finalized and technology was fully tested. The electric-drive Zumwalt, for example, was commissioned in 2016 and was designed to get close to shore to bombard land targets. Its 155mm advanced gun system, on the other hand, is being phased out because each rocket-propelled, GPS-guided shell costs nearly as much as a cruise missile.
In the meantime, two variants of the fast littoral combat ship were envisioned pursuing pirate ships off the coast of Somalia. One version had propulsion issues that affected the entire class, and both were criticized for being too lightly armored for open ocean combat. The first four are already being retired by the Navy.
Meanwhile, the most expensive ship in Navy history is the newest aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald Ford. It has had issues with the jet launch system and the elevators that transport weapons, among other things. It was supposed to cost $10.5 billion, but the price tag has risen to $13.3 billion, and “four weapons elevators are still not finished, and the reliability of key systems is low,” according to Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican.
These ship classes have cost the Navy a lot of money. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the costs of the first ships in the classes were 23 percent to 155 percent — or about $5 billion — higher than initial estimates. Since 17 sailors were killed in two separate collisions involving Navy destroyers in 2017, lawmakers have scrutinized the Navy’s readiness and overworked crews. Both collisions were caused by technological failure and human error.
The Navy’s never-ending pace continues to put strain on ships and crew. The USS Stout, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, was photographed as it returned from a 210-day deployment to Norfolk Naval Station in Virginia last fall. The rust was cosmetic, but it highlighted the cost of postponed maintenance and long deployments on ships and sailors who made no port calls during the pandemic.
“It’s wearing out the Navy, the crews, their personnel, and their families,” said Matt Caris, a defense analyst at Avascent, a Washington-based consulting firm, adding that investments in sailors, maintenance, and new ships are required. Maintaining the existing fleet will also necessitate upgrades to the nation’s four public shipyards, as well as the hiring and training of thousands of workers, according to Democratic Rep. Jim Langevin of Rhode Island.
On a recent afternoon at Navy shipbuilder Bath Iron Works, Gilday insisted that things are improving. Ships were delayed for an average of 80 percent less at public shipyards and 60 percent less at private yards compared to 18 months ago, according to Gilday. And those ships that experienced delays and cost overruns still have potential. According to him, the stealthy Zumwalt destroyer built at Bath Iron Works will be the first naval vessel to be outfitted with hypersonic missiles.