A Missed Opportunity Recalled

One of the younger participants at the LPD-24 christening does not know that her generation has the privilege of inheriting 70-year-old ships for the defense of her nation. She gets to pay for the national debt and have capital ships older than her parents and perhaps even her grandparents. Great deal for her. (Credit: SLD)

The LPD-24 Sails Into the Future

By Ed Timperlake and Robbin Laird

06/14/2011 – Recently, it was revealed that DOD plans to keep in operation ships for more than 70 years!  To put this in context, if the USS Maine had not been blown up in Havana it could have over a seventy year life cycle made an early deployment to the Coast of Vietnam during the war.

Even contemplating keeping capital ships in service over this length of time undercuts the significant sustainment capabilities, which new capital ships bring to the fight.  Sustainability is the missing factor in evaluating re-capitalization of the power projection forces.

Keeping old ships in operation for longer than their planned service life ensures that newer and more maintainable ships are not being deployed instead.  And keeping old ships in operation raises fundamental questions about the real commitment to the Green Navy.

One of the younger participants at the LPD-24 christening does not know that her generation has the privilege of inheriting 70-year-old ships for the defense of her nation. She gets to pay for the national debt and have capital ships older than her parents and perhaps even her grandparents.  Great deal for her. (Credit: SLD)
One of the younger participants at the LPD-24 christening does not know that her generation has the privilege of inheriting 70-year-old ships for the defense of her nation. She gets to pay for the national debt and have capital ships older than her parents and perhaps even her grandparents. Great deal for her. (Credit: SLD)

Already, the $2 billion a week Afghan war and $2 million dollar a day Libyan adventure have taken money from needed investment in power projection capabilities, but openly flaunting the goal of deploying the 70 year warship is a first.


Chris Cavas, the well-known naval analyst, in a recent piece in Defense News, revealed this shocking news. The current USN leadership is planning to keep ships in operation way beyond any reasonable concept of operational life.

The U.S. Navy’s two command ships, each about 40 years old, are busy vessels. The Japan-based Blue Ridge, flagship of the U.S. Seventh Fleet, recently completed a cruise around the Far East and supported relief operations in Japan. The Mount Whitney, flagship of the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean, served as a headquarters ship for the initial coalition strikes in March against Libya.

Cavas added that The ships are at a stage in their service lives where the Navy normally might be expected to plan for replacements. But in a recent update to the 30-year shipbuilding plans, the ships have been extended to serve another 28 years – until 2039.

Cavas cryptically added: Only the sail frigate Constitution, a museum ship in Boston that was launched in 1797, has been in service longer, and she was never expected to last this long.

How can this happen?  And where is the outrage that should accompany any such “ship decapitation” plan?

The answer in part is that the national media does not focus in any way on the core capabilities, which this country possesses to build the ships the nation needs.  Recently, we experienced such a process.  The Second Line of Defense team attended the christening of the LPD-24, which is the latest in the LPD-17 series.

The ship has made tremendous progress and the program manager discussed with us the fact that they have reduced by two and half million hours the touch labor necessary to build this ship in the course of the production process.  This ship is a crucial command ship allowing the Gator navy with the new aviation assets on board to become a different animal than we have seen before.

As we argued earlier:

Fast forward to the newly configured USMC Amphibious Ready Group (ARG).

The new ARG built around the LPD 17 has a larger deck to operate from, with modern C2 capabilities.

The F-35B can be launched as the picket fence operating on the border of Libya able to do electronic warfare, C4ISR and preparation for kinetic or non-kinetic strike.

The CH-53K can take off from the amphibious ships and carry three times the cargo of a CH-53E, to include 463L pallets (normally used in KC-130s).

The USMC Ospreys can support insertion operations with speed and range.

The force can of course secure an airfield for humanitarian airlift; the picket fence of the F-35s replace the AWACs and can guide coalition airpower into Libyan airspace to support agreed upon missions.  The USAF does not need to move a large air operation into place to send combat air; the USN does not need to move a large aircraft carrier battle group into place to prepare to strike Libya.

What the newly equipped ARG does is provide a significant shaping function for the President.  And this shaping function allows significant flexibility and, is in fact, a redefinition of the dichotomy between hard and soft power.

The USN-USMC amphibious team can provide for a wide-range of options for the President simply by being offshore, with 5th generation aircraft capability on board which provides 360 situational awareness, deep visibility over the air and ground space, and carrying significant capability on board to empower a full spectrum force as needed.

And if you add the LCS to the USN-USMC amphibious team you have even more capability and more options.  As a senior USMC MEU commander has put it:

You’re sitting off the coast, pick your country, doesn’t matter, you’re told okay, we’ve got to do some shaping operations, we want to take and put some assets into shore, their going to do some shaping work over here.  LCS comes in, very low profile platform.  Operating off the shore, inserts these guys in small boats that night.  They infill, they go in, their doing their mission.The LCS now sets up — it’s a gun platform.  It’s a resupply, refuel point for my Hueys and Cobras.
Now, these guys get in here, okay.  High value targets been picked out, there is an F-35 that’s doing some other operations.  These guys only came with him and said hey, we have got a high value target, but if we take him out, we will compromise our position. The F-35 goes roger, got it painted, got it seen.  This is what you’re seeing, this is what I’m seeing.  Okay.  Kill the target.  The guys on the ground never even know what hit them.

Simply by completing the procurement of what the USN and USMC are in the course of doing in a very short period, the nation gains significant flexibility to deal with ambiguous strategic situations. (https://www.sldinfo.com/?p=16486)

If the emphasis is on jobs, or on military capability, building more LPD-17s is part of the answer rather than touting the concept of operating 70 plus year old ships.

As the LPD-17 program manager underscored:

We seem to only have one more of these potentially in the queue, LPD-27. Unfortunately, we’re getting into that sweet spot now with these ships where we’ve ironed out a lot of the issues.  We’re on a good learning curve.  If we could keep going on these things, there’s no telling where we could take these ships relative to reductions in vessel labor, and overall improvements in operational excellence.

By the way, the LPD-24 was named for the USS Arlington and only Av Week and ourselves attended from out of area.  This is truly amazing as NO Washington Area paper deemed it worth its while to show up.  This kind of indifference to the ceremony, to the ship and to the USN and USMC team could not be a more compelling testimony of why the USN and USMC will be forced, if plans do not change, to ply the waters with 20th century USS Constitutions.

During the ceremony remembering the attack on the Pentagon, the World Trade Center and the fatal crash in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, officials gathered to christen the USS Arlington on March 26, 2011. The event included Arlington County officials, members of families who had lost kin in the Pentagon attack, and USN, USMC and shipyard officials and workers. The LPD-17 class will include ships named for the three sites where terrorists brought home to the United States the global conflagration, which has been called the war on terror.

The Second Line of Defense team had a chance to meet a man and his wife who symbolized the American experience. He was a Vietnam combat veteran, with eight close friends whose names are forever on The Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Tragically he and his wife were present to honor lost family members including two very young children when they were aboard the fatal American Airlines jet.

Seeing such a man brought home the loss, which Americans had that day. Indeed, this man symbolized for us the need and importance of American global engagement to reduce threats to the American homeland and to the continued American engagement to work with friends and allies to contain the terrorist challenge. (https://www.sldinfo.com/?p=17052)

The Washington Post, the hometown paper of Arlington Virginia chose not to send a reporter to cover the event.  We pursued the question with the Post and we were told it was a question of resources.  This was a mistake regardless of excuses about resources. More to the point it reflects the sense of priorities.

The United States Navy is the greatest Navy the world has ever seen and on that point there can be no doubt. No relative nuances or shades of gray can cloud that issue.

When a US Navy Battle fleet is task organized from a Carrier Battle Group, to a Navy/Marine Amphibious Ready Group, which the USS Arlington will be a key ship, to independent submarine missions on station for deterrence to independent patrols by fast attack subs the reach of the American Navy/Marine team is still truly global.  America will also never forget it was US Navy Seals that schwacked Osama Bin Laden.

Midshipman at the United States Naval Academy are taught that history shows the size of the Navy is fragile and dependent of the faith, confidence and tax money committed by the American people in support of the Navy’s mission. When a national paper of The Washington Post’s reputation could not be bothered and takes a wire feed to consider the story, it is no wonder the debate is skewered against support for building new ships, and hence, capabilities for the United States.

America can across the board lose our national security-slowly then quickly.

The founding of the Navy on October 13 1775 lead to a Navy that helped win the American Revolution. John Paul Jones, father of the American Navy said it best “I have not yet begun to fight.” But right after the revolution the US Navy completely went away and thus began the historical boom and bust cycle of America as a Naval Power.

Today the Navy is shrinking to pre-WWI levels and reports are surfacing that with current planning ships will be extended to more than 70 years in service.

Soon with Secretary Gates leaving his post as Secretary of Defense the Administration and Congress will begin to have robust debates about the future of our security. This is fair.

But what is not fair is continually “reporting” that the “acquisition system” is flawed and expensive. US Naval Officers and shipbuilders do not wake up every morning and think how can they deliver over-priced expensive and not combat capable ships to the fleet.

If the Administration and the Congress would commit to robust production, costs clearly would come down.  But this is not happening.

To quote the LPD Program Manager:

As the Navy has sized down to significantly fewer ships  from the 600-ship fleet pursued during the Reagan era, the industrial base has shrunk along with it. Also, a lot of our suppliers, like Caterpillar have gone overseas to find more business, Caterpillar particularly is doing a lot of business over in China. So now, where the American shipbuilder used to be one of the prime customers for some of these big manufacturers, now, with fewer orders, we have to get in the manufacturing line like everyone else, and wait our turn.

We’re seeing things now that we never saw before.  For instance, on the diesel engines, we have always had a pretty long lead-time on the diesel engines, but you could get a typical long lead contract and get your engines in ahead of construction of the ship. Now, we’ve had to restructure some of that a little bit, and the Navy’s had to become a little bit more flexible.  When we went to buy the engines on LPD-25, and again on 26, we had to have advanced long lead-time material to give our engine suppliers, because they had to buy their bearings and rods from suppliers that are also serving some markets overseas, which meant longer lead time for parts for our engine suppliers and consequently longer time for the engines. So, it stretched out the length of some of these big procurements a little bit longer.  And I perhaps that’s the way business is going to be, as long as the procurement volumes are significantly reduced.

The LPD-17 is the latest case of the nation getting to the point where it knows how to build something well and then ends building the platform.  It is sort of like Apple stopping with the first tranche of I Pads and saying that they are going out of the tablet PC business.

Again let us return to the LPD 17 program manager.

Because of the hurricanes, our workforce that remained with us was stressed and we also lost a lot of our workforce both here and at Avondale.  We ended up having to outsource units to subcontractors to do the steelwork on 22 and 23.  And that was not a very efficient way to do it, until we could build our workforce back up. We’re back up to speed now; our workforce has the experience with these ships now to really crank them out. If we could build more of these, there’s no telling where the price on this could go. We are now on a very good learning curve, which has allowed us to get the cost of these ships down.  Material costs are the material costs, the overhead costs, you can control somewhat, but vessel labor is where we can really make the biggest difference.

But this does not matter if one believes that 70 year operational ships is OK.  Such thinking leads quickly and inevitably to further erosion of our power projection capability The President and the Nation deserve better.