Author’s Note: Every now and then I use this platform to air my views on important Navy matters. Although I try and use other more targeted sites for this kind of work, I waited too long to get to this piece, and if it is going to have any impact, it needed to get online inside of a lot of other site’s editorial turnaround time (I’m starting this less than twelve hours before I will post it). I would be grateful to interested readers who forward this along as you are able.
Congress takes up work this week on the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the product of House and Senate Armed Services Committee conference and staff deliberations over the past few months. The House version of the bill contained two key provisions, the passage of which is crucial for the future of the Navy and its ability to carry out its missions in peace and war.
Title 10 Mission
The first of those provisions is a change to the Title 10 mission of the Navy (section 912 ), a change that gives force of law to the irreplaceable (yet undefined) role of forward deployed naval forces in the peacetime security and prosperity of the country (in addition to the well-understood role of the Navy in warfighting). I covered this provision extensively when the House passed its bill in June, and as I predicted then, the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) has formally objected to this change, citing the potential for dilution of Navy focus on the warfighting tasks associated with the Department’s pacing threat—China. This fear is disingenuous, in that the Navy has since its inception, been a primary instrument in protecting America’s prosperity. More to the point, if public law comes to enshrine these peacetime requirements alongside the Navy’s combat functions, OSD will have to produce budgets that resource the capacity and capability to do both, something that Defense Departments of both parties are consistently unwilling to do.
The National Commission on the Future of the Navy
The second provision (section 1094) of significant importance to the Navy in the House bill is a proposal for a “National Commission on the Future of the Navy”. Made up of eight members (2 each Senators and Representatives, plus four experts), this commission would have until July 1, 2024 to produce two studies. The first study is to focus on Naval Force Structure in order to produce a “…comprehensive study of the structure of the Navy and policy assumptions related to the size and force mixture of the Navy, in order--(i) to make recommendations on the size and force mixture of ships; and (ii) to make recommendations on the size and force mixture of naval aviation…”. Additionally, the recommendations are to be binned into three separate resource levels—the first assumes 2023 spending plus inflation, the second assumes 2023 levels plus 3-5% “real growth” (in addition to inflation), and the third assumes unconstrained spending to meet the needs for war in two theaters—the Indo-Pacific and the Europe.
The second study focuses on Shipbuilding and Innovation with the charge to:
(A) In general.--The Commission shall conduct a
detail study on shipbuilding, shipyards, and
integrating advanced information technologies such as
augmented reality an artificial intelligence on the
(B) Considerations.--In conducting the study
required by subparagraph (A), the Commission shall
consider the following:
(i) Recommendations for specific changes to
the Navy's Shipyard Infrastructure Optimization
Program, to include legislative changes to
providing a multi-year appropriation;
additionally provides recommendations for
bringing into the shipyards innovative
technology companies as part of the overall
(ii) Recommendations for changes to the
ship design and build program, to reduce risk,
reduce cost, accelerate build timelines, and
takes an incremental approach to change in
future ship building.
(iii) Recommendations for changes to the
ship depot maintenance program in order to
reduce overhaul timelines, integrate current
technologies into ships, and reduces costs.
There has not been much in the way of reaction from either the Navy or the navalist community to the prospect of this commission, outside of the response of the Dean of the Center for Maritime Strategy. In a June op-ed, the retired former commander of the Navy’s European Forces bristled at the prospect of “another layer of bureaucracy”, stating that “the last thing that the Navy needs is another task force to examine the known outcomes of the last 30-plus years.” I beg to differ.
What the House proposes in creating this commission is not an additional layer of bureaucracy but the proper exercise of oversight arising from the Constitutional requirement for the legislative branch to “provide and maintain a Navy” (Article I, Section 8, Clause 13). How the Congress carries out this oversight function is its own prerogative, and a recent study reveals that such commissions have been a common means of doing so. Ultimately, the commission cannot change anything. All it can do is recommend changes in legislation that must still be considered and passed by both chambers of Congress and signed by the President. It is incorrect and contrary to the historical record to consider Congressional interests in these matters to be incidental or subordinate to those of the executive branch, irrespective of the degree to which active and retired flag officers might wish it. Additionally, looking at Congress as some sort of intermeddler in important matters of force structure and fleet design is strategically unwise, especially in situations like the present where the Navy the nation needs is not supported by the policies and resources requested by the Administration. Civilian control of the military requires uniformed adherence to White House and OSD direction, and that is generally a good thing, but the Navy’s relationship with Congress is equally important, and Congress can play an effective counterweight to short-sighted executive branch policy.
Important Questions for the Commission
While the enabling legislation provides a solid framework to guide the Commission’s inquiries, the following focusing questions (and discussion) should be considered as part of the deeper effort.
If the NDAA authorizes both the creation of this Commission AND the change to the Title 10 mission of the Navy, what force structure and resource implications arise?
If the NDAA authorizes the creation of the Commission but NOT the change to the Title 10 mission of the Navy, of what importance to the nation’s security and prosperity are the peacetime, forward-based operations of the Navy, and how can the Congress act to ensure that if these activities are desired, they are resourced?
Regarding force structure:
What is the desired number of large, nuclear-powered aircraft carriers to support war plans, conventional deterrence, and naval diplomacy?
What is an effective mix of satellite, land-based, and ship-based ISR platforms, one that provides for effective peacetime targeting and that also reserves a sufficient number of low-observable platforms that can make the transition to combat operations?
In the space of less than four years, the Marine Corps requirement for large amphibious ships went from 38 to 31 with little debate even as the threat perception has increased. Given the flexibility and capability of these ships in both peacetime operations and amphibious assault, is this decline in numbers wise? It appears that amphibious force structure is being cannibalized in order to create resources for a new class of ship (Light Amphibious Warship or LAW) to support USMC’s emerging force design. What is the rationale for not retaining the 38 amphibious ship requirement AND building LAW?
Irrespective of the number of amphibious ships, what is the continuing rationale for not equipping them with offensive weapons?
What is the right ratio of Large Surface Combatants to Small Surface Combatants in a future force? Does the total number of surface combatants change this ratio? How and why?
The Navy currently has no stated plan or timeline to bring in a second shipyard to build its new CONSTELLATION Class Frigate. What is the window for bringing on a second yard to increase production and create competition?
What is an ideal timeline for transitioning from production of Flight III Destroyers to the new DDGX destroyer? What lessons can be learned from the transition from TICONDEROGA Class Cruiser construction to ARLEIGH BURKE Destroyer production?
What are the prospects for the submarine industrial base to be able to build two Block V VIRGINIA Class SSNs per year AND the new ballistic missile submarine, the COLUMBIA Class? What are the risks and how can additional resources be applied to buy down that risk?
Is there a role for Fast Patrol Vessels armed with a modest number of lethal surface-to-surface missiles in the future Navy? Why has the Navy shied away from these platforms in the past, and has anything changed to warrant their fielding in the future?
Is the early decommissioning of LCS hulls desired by the Navy short-sighted? Can they be upgraded and potentially forward based in Europe and the Middle East? Should they be?
Both the Large Unmanned Surface Vessel (LUSV) and the Medium Unmanned Surface Vessel (MUSV) programs appear to be in caretaker status. Most of the energy in surface unmanned systems is being generated by the activities of CTF 59 in the Fifth Fleet. What has the Navy learned from CTF 59 and has that learning impacted its acquisition plans for the larger unmanned vessels?
A 2017 Future Fleet Architecture study directed by the Congress called for the establishment of composite squadrons of unmanned surface and underwater vehicles in Northern Europe and elsewhere in the European theater. Is there merit in this idea?
What is the Navy’s plan for expeditionary ship repair?
What is the Navy’s plan for expeditionary re-arming?
How must the fleet logistics force change to meet the requirements of the force structures evaluated under the three different resource levels?
Regarding Shipbuilding and Innovation
Does the nation require additional public shipyards? If so, what are candidate facilities?
Are there technologies and approaches being used in foreign shipyards that Congress can incentivize in U.S. shipyards?
What are the drydock needs of the Navy at varying force levels and what is the plan to provide sufficient strategically located docking?
Although this is not specifically called for in the enabling legislation, what can be done to increase production capacity of key munitions? Can the government incentivize new companies in related industries to enter the market?
What policy/legal changes are required in order to promote additional stability and learning in serial production and reduce what appear to be predictable cost overruns in early production?
What contractual and acquisition changes can promote additional stability and learning in serial production and reduce what appear to be predicable cost overruns in early production?
Is there value in considering a “very low-cost” torpedo, given the number of targets to be neutralized in a China scenario and the paucity of MK 48/ADCAP torpedoes? Can advanced torpedoes be husbanded for high value naval targets while expending a low-cost variant on less capable/maneuverable platforms?
Is there value in developing plans for “on the shelf” capability that could be relatively easily spun up under wartime conditions? Specifically, paying for the design and limited production of numerous craft (manned and unmanned) that may not necessarily be highly prized now, but which may become more desired as a conflict progresses. This applies also to munitions.
Perhaps by the end of this week we will know the status of these two key provisions for the future of the Navy. That so few well-connected-to-the-Navy types are aware of these initiatives is troubling, and there appears to have been little or no effort made to lobby Congress for inclusion. This is unfortunate. Congress appears to be extending a hand to the Navy to help pull itself up to the challenges of great power competition, and it is incumbent upon Navy leadership to ensure that its best advice is freely provided to both the executive and the legislative branches.
A thoughtful, well-defined “to-do” list for naval operations analysts, policymakers, resourcing organizations, and naval leaders.
Did you consider asking what is the status of VLS re-arming at sea? NAVSEA has been attempting to field this capability for decades. It is a critical war fighting enabler for three main reasons: the tyranny of distance in the Pacific will prevent ships from going off station to reload, the insufficient number of ships, and the inadequate number of VLS munitions.