The Navy needs ships, not excuses

The Navy doesn’t have nearly enough ships and submarines to deter or defeat China in war. It also apparently lacks the leadership to fix this dire problem.

That is the only conclusion that can be drawn from the Navy’s cancellation of a traditional briefing for journalists at its annual shipbuilding trade show. According to reports, it canceled the briefing because it is embarrassed by a new service report that found endemic delays in the building of all of our most capable warships, including the Virginia-class attack submarines, Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines, Constellation-class frigates, and Arleigh Burke-class destroyers.

Delays to the Constellation-class frigates reveal the problem. The Navy report found that Fincantieri Marinette Marine’s delivery of the first frigate is now three years behind schedule. This is the opposite of what the Constellation frigates were supposed to provide. Based heavily on Fincantieri’s FREMM-class frigates in the French and Italian navies, the Constellation class was supposed to give the Navy an affordable, quickly built, and capable anti-air, anti-submarine, and anti-ship combatant vessel. It is a frigate designed to fight and help win in all but the most high-intensity battles against China’s People’s Liberation Army.

The Constellation problem goes beyond delays, extending into the Navy’s disingenuous explanations. Vice Adm. James Downey, head of the Naval Sea Systems Command, is responsible for overseeing warship design and delivery. He told USNI News that the Constellation delays are due to Fincantieri’s “increased workload, difficulty hiring and keeping talent, and the varying stages of the three programs currently under construction there.”

But although these are real concerns, the core problem is that Downey and his predecessors have kept changing the Constellation-class design. As USNI noted, “At one point the Constellation design shared about 85% commonality with the original FREMM design, but the alterations have brought that commonality down to under 15%.” FREMM is widely regarded as an excellent warship class. Some changes were necessary to ensure it could survive in the East China Sea. But the Navy has tinkered with other aspects of FREMM’s design so repeatedly and ridiculously that it has postponed delivery unconscionably. Downey’s unapologetic failure to admit this is a failure of leadership.

The Navy dismisses commanding and executive officers for failures real or imagined. But accountability wanes when it comes to admirals needing to dismiss and replace other admirals for significant failures. Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro has failed to impose accountability, and he has not taken action to penalize incompetent shipbuilders or those who have prioritized profits over contract responsibilities. The consequences are clear. While shipbuilding costs are soaring and delays are lengthening, the Chinese navy is receiving warships of many different classes every year. These include the exceptionally capable Type 055 air defense destroyer. So America has a big problem, and it is covering it up rather than fixing it.

It would be unfair to blame the Navy alone. The Biden administration’s defense budget ignores the need for massive spending on the shipbuilding industrial base and workforce. Members of Congress must also share the blame.

Rep. Rob Wittman (R-VA), for example, told Politico that “our nation should be incredibly frustrated to see such systemic delays to our marquee shipbuilding programs.” But he does not, of course, mention that he and other influential members, such as House Appropriations Committee Chairman Kay Granger (R-TX), support littoral combat ships, which are underarmed, underpowered, and frequently broken down. They are floating graveyards. Everyone knows this, and the Navy has sought for years to cancel the class. But too many members of Congress prioritize cronyism to help shipbuilders in their districts at the expense of national defense needs. Even Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-WI), otherwise a star voice on China’s threat, has supported this worse-than-useless vessel.

Things might soon get worse. Even if the Navy makes its best efforts to improve its capabilities over the next few years, it still could lose a war against China. The Navy needs better capability and more accountability now, not tomorrow.

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Yet Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) is trying to force a “buy American” policy on shipbuilders purchasing materials. Her legislation might sound as though it would serve the national interest, but it does the opposite. It would warm Chinese President Xi Jinping’s heart, worsening rampant supply shortages, construction costs, and delays.

A final concern is shipbuilders’ reliance on union contracts that prohibit their hiring of freelancers to fill workforce gaps. If the nation is to resolve its shipbuilding delays, all available talent must be made available. National defense legislation is needed to protect shipbuilders who hire nonunion workers and compel work from union workers. Far greater effort must be taken to ensure that more warships are built quickly.

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