The Hard Question on Shipbuilding
The answer to the first part of that question is, our current ships are wearing out and are being retired at a breakneck pace to recover maintenance dollars to fund new construction. This makes sense, both logically and economically, but from a security standpoint it means America has the smallest Navy since the First World War.
The second part of that question is getting harder to answer because of the spiraling cost of shipbuilding. And the spiral I'm writing about is not the good spiral of "spiral development." It's the "death spiral" type, and the slow-motion, "Oh My God!" reaction is being acted out in Congress.
For those of you in need of context, try reading some of these posts:
- Tiffany Navy: the LCS chapter
- Shipbuilding Defense Orders Flank Speed
- The “R” On 36M-4R
- The HAC Hacks Shipbuilding Plan
- Is the Navy Getting a Clue About Shipbuilding?
- Navy Shipbuilding Plan a Non-Starter
But Chap drags me back into the issue by asking the hard question: "What [can we] do to make it better?" He comments:
Every new weapons system has its detractors, from the people who wanted different capabilities, the people who wanted a different mix of stuff, the people unhappy with the risk involved with the decision to leave off (insert capability here), the people who think that capability is a waste of time, the people who are passionate that their alternate solution will be better, to the people who feel the new thing is a threat to either their old thing or a different new thing. Lots of exquisite and passionate complaining. Every new first of class I’ve ever studied has had people passionately state–with data to back it up–that the new concept as it’s being built is a failure, whether or not it’s been useful in the fleet later (depends on the people, the capability, and the point in history).To answer Chap's question, I think the problem is the people that make the acquisition decisions are way to focused on getting systems that are a generation or more ahead of anything anyone else has, and not focused enough on having a sufficient number quality ships manned by well trained Sailors.
As Norman Polmar noted, when both opponents have a sufficient number of ships to get to the fight, quality will edge out quantity. But when one side is relying on a few really good platforms to overcome a multitude of decent platforms, the numbers trump the quality, all other factors being equal.
Which brings us to another point: all other factors aren't equal. Sure, there are navies out there that have very capable and well-trained sailors. But they're not our enemies. Right now our enemies are driving run-down merchant ships, creaky dhows and Boston Whalers with small arms or explosives. And even if one of those rogue nations with a significant navy like Iran decides to pick a fight, because of differing levels of training, you could put American Sailors on their ships and we would still win. I've played war with a number of navies in that part of the world, and while they're buying fairly decent platforms, they haven't progressed past the "fire everything you've got in the general direction of the enemy and run like hell" training level.
So, in short, I think the first change in the shipbuilding equasion can be summed up with one sentence: Stop trying to make every new ship class the "best thing since sliced bread." If the Marines can make do with "good men", the Navy should be able to make do with the right number of "good" ships.