US naval expenditure: is reality finally beginning to bite?

I’ve long been annoyed and frustrated at the US Navy’s visible incompetence and waste of taxpayers’ time and money in designing, building and commissioning new generations of warships.  The “Little Crappy Ship” imbroglio, the Zumwalt train wreck and the USS Gerald R. Ford’s litany of failures are only the first three programs to come to mind – there are many more.  Therefore, I wasn’t surprised to see the Defense Secretary’s decision about funding a new generation of nuclear missile submarines.

After years of warnings from U.S. Navy leaders that replacing the aging Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine will eat the service’s shipbuilding account alive, the year the first Columbia-class submarine is to be funded has arrived with the fiscal year 2021 budget request. But according to Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, the Navy shouldn’t expect any extra money to pay for it.

In an exclusive interview with Defense News Friday, Esper said the Columbia class is a Navy bill, just like Air Force nuclear deterrent recapitalization will be an Air Force bill, and the services will just have to find efficiencies in house to pay for it.

“Clearly, the Columbia is a big bill, but it’s a big bill we have to pay,” Esper said. “That’s the Navy’s bill. The Air Force has a bill called bombers and ground-based strategic deterrent, so that’s a bill they have to pay.

“We all recognize that. Acting Secretary [Thomas] Modly and I have spoken about this. He believes, and I think he’s absolutely correct, that there are more and more efficiencies to be found within the department, the Navy and the Marine Corps, that they can free up money to invest into ships — into platforms.”

The word from Esper that Columbia would be considered a shipbuilding bill seemed to put the final stake in the heart of years of efforts by Navy leaders and lawmakers to avoid crushing the Navy’s shipbuilding budget and negatively impacting other programs such as surface ship construction, ships that provide both a vital peacetime deterrence function and are popular with lawmakers with shipbuilders in their states.

There’s more at the link.

The Navy will doubtless scream in protest:  but it doesn’t have a leg to stand on.  It’s wasted enough money on the aforementioned LCS, Zumwalt and Ford programs to more than pay for the entire Columbia class of missile submarines.  With the sole exception of the Ford class (if, and only if, it can be made to work as designed – that’s not yet guaranteed), that money is a write-off.  Billions upon billions of dollars have been thrown away on programs that will be of little or no operational benefit to the Navy, in peace or in time of war.  As far as I’m concerned, any service that thinks it’s OK to pour so much taxpayer money down the drain doesn’t deserve more of the same.

The same applies to the Air Force and the Army – to the entire Defense Department, in fact.  It failed its first-ever financial audit a couple of years ago, and has racked up $35 trillion (yes, that’s “trillion” with a T!) in accounting changes in the space of just one year.  Any commercial business running itself that way would have been driven into bankruptcy long ago!  Certainly, the oversight authorities would have long since taken action against it.  Why should the Defense Department be exempt from such investigations, and such oversight?

Other services are being forced to make major sacrifices in existing equipment and inventory in order to fund their new programs.  The Army’s cutting back its purchases of the new Joint Light Tactical Vehicle and cancelling other important programs.  The Air Force is retiring hundreds of “legacy” aircraft to afford modern replacements (even though the F-35 program, which will replace them, is a poster child for waste, fraud and boondoggles;  it’s become “the most expensive weapons program in history“).  Why should the Navy not be required to do likewise?

The USA simply can’t afford its “military-industrial complex” any longer.  The budget will only stretch so far.  We’re already facing trillion-dollar-plus deficits every year for the foreseeable future, to fund the entitlement programs to which the American people seem to have become addicted.  More than half the US population receives money or other assistance from one or more government programs.  Given that reality, there simply isn’t enough money left over to pay for flashy new toys as well – particularly when the armed forces have such a dismal record of waste, profligate expenditure and inability to police their own bureaucracy in managing their responsibilities.

Knowledgeable experts point to the expansion of our rivals’ armed forces, and warn that we have to match them or risk being overmatched.  They’re right.  However, if we can’t afford that, we can’t do it.  It’s as simple as that.  The Navy has no-one to blame but itself for its current financial crisis.  It’s wasted tens of billions of dollars on programs that don’t work, and contribute little or nothing to its mission.  Unless and until it gets its financial house in order, its crisis of capability and affordability will continue.  There won’t be any bailout in the form of more money coming from Congress.  The money isn’t there.  The same applies to the other US armed forces.  They’ll have to shape up, or do without.

(A good place to start would be with the bloated ranks of generals and admirals.  I reckon we could cut a third to a half of their slots, and retire their incumbents, without affecting the readiness of our armed forces in any way.  For example, at the time of writing the US Navy has 250 ships active in commission.  It has 246 admirals, from grades O-7 to O-10 [one to four stars].  I simply can’t believe that the latter figure is justifiable in the light of the former number.  How about cutting them back to 150, a reduction of about 40%?  That would be a good start – and might even pay for a nuclear missile submarine or two, over time, just from the savings in salary and benefits!  Impose the same proportional reductions on the upper ranks of the Army and Air Force, and you might be talking some serious money.)

Peter

18 comments

  1. We can start with the Army’s idiotic quest for the new 6.8mm super weapon. This quixotic affair was destined for failure from the start, as it is simply unrealistic. They could save millions by just using the .270, and achieve 100% of their stated goals. (The ones that are achievable, that is. You can’t make a .270 that shoots like a .223 and weighs even less, because physics and chemistry.)

    But then there wouldn’t be all that sweet, sweet graft money and cushy retirement jobs.

  2. The Army cancelled the precision rocket acquisition because it was too cheap, and already in production. There were no real opportunities for graft and corruption. The fact that it is an effective and inexpensive upgrade in combat power is seen as a detriment by the legacy people in the Pentagon.

  3. More than half the US population receives money or other assistance from one or more government programs.

    This is a pretty weak argument to throw in there. Whether a program is vital to the defense of our nation or not should be determined on its own merits, not “We’re spending too much on other programs.”

    A pet peeve of mine is the frequent admiration of Eisenhower for coining the phrase “Military-Industrial complex>”, while ignoring the other warning in his farewell address:
    …we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.

  4. The Bradly replacement program was cancelled, for breaking the laws of physics and the budget at the same time. Apparently the RFP was impossible to meet, even by the contractor who ghost-wrote a lot of it. Lot of money wasted there, too. JLTV suffered, meaning a lot of overloaded HMMWVs that are already near or over clock’s end have to be kept running

    Few people remain who understand how to match up combat missions and needs with what’s practical to build, operate, survive, and repair. They’re ignored or shoved aside in search for the next shiny. None of these is a general officer.

  5. Admirals and generals love having pressers announcing new wiz-bang weapons, congress critters love brining the pork home, bureaucrats love getting more programs to “manage” and everyone gets a “piece of the action.” As long as the guys who actually do the fighting can get the job done with the available equipment, boondoggles that actually accomplish nothing are more preferable for the powers that be than making meaningful upgrades to existing systems. I applaud efforts to halt the military’s bloated weapon system programs. However, I fear that like the Hydra cutting off one head will only result in two more growing back.

  6. Who would want to serve in, or contract to, the procurement arm of a service that responded to the failure of one poorly considered and run program by punishing the adjacent essential and well-managed ones, as you propose? While it might satisfy the (well-justified) dyspepsia of certain commenters, it does not seem like an approach that leads to the US maintaining for the long duree its capacity to deter aggressive actions by other nations against ourselves or our allies.

    Also, while there’s plenty of corruption and underhanded dealing in naval acquisition, raising high hell about the USN’s 20ish billion dollar shipbuilding budget seems like tending to a cut on your foot when you have a sucking chest wound. Sure, the cut could get infected, but it probably shouldn’t be your priority.

  7. Something to remember about US weapons systems is they are entirely boondoggle, expensive and useless…

    Until they work far beyond any expectation of success when they finally get fired in anger.

    We laughed our asses off watching a 60 minutes expose on the M1 Abrams telling us about the numerous faults with the tanks in the motor pool. Faults which had long since been corrected. The press was years behind the process.

    While F-35 is proving to be very expensive, is it actually more expensive than F-16 plus F/A-18 plus AV-8B? Everyone forgets that it’s THREE planes being developed at the same time then compares it to just one service’s plane that it’s supposed to replace. And, by the way, F-35 appears to be working as advertised.

    Ford will be sorted. We know it can be because the parts which are giving it fits worked on land.

    LCS and Zumwalt? We needed a frigate to replace Perry and we will need a destroyer to replace Burke. We don’t need corvettes or a “destroyer” as large as some cruiser classes.

  8. To extend Angus’ point a bit, if the modern defense press and internet commentariat had existed during the Cold War, it’s not just the M1 Abrams that you might be convinced was an absurd, useless boondoggle, but the F-14 Tomcat, M-2 Bradley, USS Long Beach, USS Enterprise, and a pretty wide swath of the other ship classes the US Navy procured.

    It’s good that we have more information available now than we did then, but the temporal asymmetry tends to give people funny ideas about how well the acquisition system worked in the past vs. how well it works now.

    Which isn’t to say it hasn’t gotten worse, it has, but this administration has taken at least the first steps to reverse that. Not as much as I’d like to see, but something.

  9. Not to mention, one of the main failings of any weapons procurement program is… mission creep.

    Like the GCV of the late 90’s-early 2000’s. A common hull shape, common components like steering, suspensions, bogies, engines, fuel systems, electrical etc, etc, etc. ‘Add-on’ components, from remote weapon turrets, to manned turrets, to ambulance, to, well, everything… all were designed to use the basic stuffs. But mission creep came in and… a straight up APC must outfight a dedicated IFV, which must be able to take out an MBT, while the gun support system (mini-tank) went from having a 90mm low pressure gun to a 105mm low pressure gun to a 105mm smoothbore to a 120mm just like the Abrams to a gun/rocket system much like the Sheridan. And so forth. And so forth.

    Mission creep. Constantly changing the requirements which require a whole-new design stage which causes costs to go up and now start at the beginning of the sentence and keep looping.

    What we need is a basic platform for ‘tracked’ vehicles. Like the M3/M4 medium suspension and hull design from WWII. Hey, let’s make a tank. Let’s make a tank destroyer. Let’s make a howitzer carrier. Let’s make a big howitzer carrier…

    That’s the way to do it.

    And design for 5 years from now. Quit trying to anticipate what is going to happen 50 years from now.

    Just build the darned things.

  10. The costs are higher than in other countries because of established patterns of secondary, tertiary, quaternary…etc. feeders: government hierarchies seeking to expand their empires, corporate hierarchies and stockholders, legislators’ constituents “back home”, etc. All contribute to the bloat, but very few contribute to the product. The same reason why Elon Musk can do things at less expense than NASA.

  11. Agree with most of your points, however do not neglect the role of the Congress and of industry. Just recall when SecDef Rumsfeld tried to cancel several large, wasteful outdated programs – and he was steamrolled by Congress.Or consider all the years DoD has tried to have another round of base closings. There is a reason LockheedMartin has parts for the F-22 manufactured in 49 states or F-35 in multiple countries. Same with our shipbuilding. Many times the USN has tried to reduce the numbers of shipyards to no avail – big job numbers carry big weight in congressional Districts

  12. How about starting with more fundamental issues, and then grow from their? Things like, no sodomites in any branch, and no females whatsoever in any field resembling combat.

    These are ground floor cultural depravities. The way that anyone reacts to either or both of those premises speaks volumes regarding whether anything more complex can be addressed.

  13. @Angus –
    The F-35 isn’t better than an F-16 plus an F/A-18 plus an AV-8B. I’d rather have three planes that are good at their individual missions than one that isn’t particularly good at any one thing for the same total price.

    Quantity has a quality all its own.

  14. Until, and unless government (including military) has some accountability that holds individuals responsible for waste, fraud, and neglect nothing will change.
    Many comments have referenced the multi billion failures of the LCS etc, but who lost their job who lost their pension? who went to prison?
    Any attempt to nibble at the edges of the bureaucracy is doomed. A wholesale restructure is what is needed.
    We could easily do the same amount of “work” in the govenment with 50% less employees, and about the same % of overall agencies.
    We did fine without a department of education until it was created in the 70’s and now look at it’s budget.
    As a life long businessman who lives and dies on profit, efficiency, and quality I can’t wrap my head around the waste in our government

  15. And even if it were, it can only be one place, instead of three.
    And there’s a decided lack of evidence that it can adequately fill any of their roles.
    .
    The simple fact is that the F-15 and F-16 exceeded the capabilities of human pilots over 40 years ago.
    An evolutionary fighter with a more efficient modern engine, ducted exhaust, modern electronics and avionics merges sense.
    Especially if we can build it cheaper.
    But that’s the exact opposite of the F-35.

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