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US Navy struggling to keep ageing surface fleet ‘fit for purpose’

Burdened by global responsibilities and a shrinking budget, an internal report has revealed the US Navy is apparently struggling to maintain and modernise its fleet at a time when it will be required to play an increasing role in maintaining security and freedom of access in the maritime commons, meaning one thing: America’s allies are going to have to do more.

Burdened by global responsibilities and a shrinking budget, an internal report has revealed the US Navy is apparently struggling to maintain and modernise its fleet at a time when it will be required to play an increasing role in maintaining security and freedom of access in the maritime commons, meaning one thing: America’s allies are going to have to do more.

Throughout history no naval force has so effectively and dominantly managed the security and freedom of navigation on the global maritime commons as the US Navy –- emerging from the Second World War as the premier naval power and surging out the other side of the Cold War victorious it seemed as if none could challenge the unassailable might of the US Navy. 

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Today, as we look not only across the Indo-Pacific but more broadly around the globe, many established and rising powers are expanding the capability and composition of their respective naval forces as tensions continue to mount in the post-COVID world.

The US, divided domestically and weary from decades of serving as the world's policeman is feeling the weight of its global responsibilities, is being stalked by the 'newcomer'; Communist China, an ancient power, with a proud and storied history, reinvigorated by decades of development seeking to extend its influence and prestige as a truly global power once again.

This economic, political and strategic competition is gaining increasing traction in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly as both sides embark on one of the single largest naval modernisation and recapitalisation programs in history.

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China's rapid recapitalisation and modernisation has seen the People's Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) evolve into one of the world's most powerful and modern navies, capable of global reach on an increasing scale, with aircraft carriers, ballistic missile submarines, amphibious warfare ships and next-gen large surface combatants all on the shopping list.

On one side of the Pacific, the US Navy is struggling to modernise, repurpose and recapitalise a range of Cold War-era platforms that have formed the backbone of the world's most powerful navy since the end of the Second World War – increasing budget overruns, delivery delays and a focus on land-based wars in the Middle East have seen the fleet fall by the wayside.

Despite efforts by US President Donald Trump to establish a 355-ship fleet capable of reaffirming America's global responsibilities and reassuring allies in the face of growing great power tensions, funding has been hit and miss, with many large-scale programs absorbing much of the additional funding promised.

This is particularly relevant as Beijing's own fleet strength continues to grow. In response, US Defense Secretary Dr Mark Esper has redoubled calls for more funding to directly support America's naval modernisation.

Secretary Esper explained this push, stating, "We will build this fleet in such a way that balances tomorrow’s challenges with today’s readiness needs, and does not create a hollow Navy in the process. To achieve this outcome, we must increase funding for shipbuilding and the readiness that sustains a larger force. Doing this, and finding the money within the Navy budget and elsewhere to make it real, is something both the Navy leadership and I are committed to doing."

This call is backed by a record US$207 billion request for the US Navy as part of the Pentagon's 2021 budget request as the force pivots to respond to key capability developments by Beijing, namely, a powerful fleet, paired with shore-based, long-range anti-ship missile capabilities designed to blunt traditional US and allied advantages and, critically, to keep the US Navy’s powerful carrier air wing out of striking distance.

Serious issues facing the fleet 

However, despite these initiatives and verbal commitments, the US Navy's Board of Inspection and Survey has released a report revealing the impact platform ageing is having upon the capability of the US Navy fleet and its ability to maintain a global security paradigm the US and its allies have grown dependent upon for sustained economic growth and prosperity. 

David Larter builds on the US Navy report, detailing some of the main concerns surrounding the modernisation and sustainment of key US Navy assets, particularly Aegis-powered platforms like the older Arleigh Burke Class guided missile destroyers, stating: "The US Navy’s aging surface fleet is getting harder to maintain, and overall is showing declining health in several key areas, such as its main propulsion systems, electrical systems and Aegis combat systems, according to an annual report of the Navy’s Board of Inspection and Survey submitted to Congress earlier this year.

"The so-called INSURV inspections found that over five years, the surface fleet found big dips in the main propulsion systems — the plants that produce the power to push the ship through the water — as well as in the electrical systems and aviation systems. The Aegis systems, a collection of sensors and software that protects the ship primarily from air threats, has also shown some signs of slipping over the last half-decade."

These concerns come following the unofficial challenge issued by Beijing as the rising power seeks to build a fleet of 425 ships by 2030, making it the world's largest navy, expanding its already formidable and growing global reach. In response, Secretary Esper's calls for increased shipbuilding funding builds on traction in congress. 

Larter explained the impact of Beijing's battlefleet ambitions by shedding light on the dramatic decline in capability of the US Navy, stating, "For INSURV, ships are graded across a wide variety of systems, with scores adding up to a 'figure of merit' where perfect equals 1.0. Over more than 30 surface ship inspections in 2019, the Navy tracked a 20 per cent drop in scores between 2014 and 2019 in the main propulsion plant and another 20 per cent drop in scores for the ships’ electrical systems.

"Aegis, which is the beating heart of the combat systems on cruisers and destroyers, saw a slight but concerning drop from a figure of merit of 0.88 in 2017 to 0.77 in 2019. Aviation systems, the systems concerned with launching and recovering rotary wing aircraft, dropped from 0.77 in 2014 to 0.68 in 2019.

"By contrast, scores from submarine main propulsion — governed by strict Naval Reactors guidelines and inspections — scored figures of merit of 0.94, submarine electrical systems scored 0.90, and submarine combat systems scored a 0.84.

"Overall, the Navy’s surface fleet got high marks in navigation systems, medical systems, anti-submarine warfare systems and preservation."

While targeting a different challenge, US Republican senator for Georgia David Perdue jnr has recognised that the US can and should be doing more to keep pace with its rivals. 

"Right now, the world is more dangerous than any time in my lifetime. The United States faces five major threats: China, Russia, Iran, North Korea and terrorism. We face those threats across five domains: air, land, sea, cyber space and space," Senator Perdue explains. 

"The US Navy is one of the most effective tools we as a country have to maintain peace and stability around the world. Today, however, the Navy is in danger of being surpassed in capability by our near-peer competitors. On top of that, our competitors are becoming even more brazen in their attempts to challenge our Navy every day.

"To address this, the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act called for a 355-ship Navy to be built as soon as possible. This effort is extremely expensive: $31 billion per year for 30 years. This can’t be funded by new debt. We must reallocate resources to fund this priority.

"It is unclear at this time whether we will be able to achieve this goal, however, because Washington politicians have failed to provide consistent funding to our shipbuilding enterprise over the years.

"The last two Democratic presidents reduced military spending by 25 per cent. Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama did it. Also, since 1975, Congress has only funded the government on time on four occasions due to our broken budget process. As a result, Congress forces the military in most years to operate under continuing resolutions, which further restricts the Navy’s efforts to rebuild." 

This echoes concerns regarding the potential for a 'hollow force'. Secretary Esper speaking to Defense News articulated his commitment and ambitions to getting the US Navy to a 355-ship fleet by 2030, with an aim to achieve a much higher number in response to the mounting global challenges. 

"To me that's where we need to push. We need to push much more aggressively. That would allow us to get our numbers up quickly, and I believe that we can get to 355, if not higher, by 2030," Secretary Esper said. 

Your thoughts

As an island nation, Australia is defined by its relationship with the ocean. Maritime power projection and sea control play a pivotal role in securing Australia’s economic and strategic security as a result of the intrinsic connection between the nation and Indo-Pacific Asia’s strategic sea-lines-of-communication in the 21st century.

Further compounding Australia's precarious position is an acceptance that 'Pax Americana', or the post-Second World War 'American Peace', is over, the world is now a multi-polar, contested environment. 

In response, Australia will require a uniquely Australian approach and recognition that the nation is now solely responsible for the security of its national interests, with key alliances serving a secondary, complementary role to the broader debate. 

Australia cannot simply rely on the US, or Japan, or the UK, or France to guarantee the economic, political and strategic interests of the nation. China is already actively undermining the regional order through its provocative actions in the South China Sea and its rapid military build-up.

To assume that Australia will remain immune to any hostilities that break out in the region is naive at best and criminally negligent at worst.

As a nation, Australia cannot turn a blind eye to its own geopolitical, economic and strategic backyard, both at a traditional and asymmetric level, lest we see a repeat of Imperial Japan or the Iranian Revolution arrive on our doorstep.

It is clear from history that appeasement does not work, so it is time to avoid repeating the mistakes of our past and be fully prepared to meet any challenge.  

There is an old Latin adage that perfectly describes Australia’s predicament and should serve as sage advice: "Si vis pacem, para bellum" – If you want peace, prepare for war. 

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US Navy struggling to keep ageing surface fleet ‘fit for purpose’
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