Facing Threats, U.S. Navy Struggles to Modernize Its Ships

Facing Threats, U.S. Navy Struggles to Modernize Its Ships

In the sprawling shipyard along the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, a symphony of sounds filled the air – the clang of metal, the hiss of steam, the beep of machinery, and the blaring of horns, bells, and whistles. Over 7,000 workers bustled to fulfill orders fueled by the largest shipbuilding budget in Navy history, a staggering $32 billion for this year alone. This surge in spending allowed the Huntington Ingalls shipyard to hire thousands more workers to assemble guided missile destroyers and amphibious ships. Kari Wilkinson, the shipyard’s president, expressed the belief that more ships always equate to better efficiency due to the steady flow of contracts and jobs they create.

However, while Washington’s focus on producing new warships continues to grow, some within the Pentagon are concerned that this obsession with conventional methods may lead to a Navy wedded to outdated military strategies, becoming financially unsustainable in the decades ahead.

Half a world away, at a U.S. Navy outpost in Bahrain, a smaller team was exploring an entirely different approach to address 21st-century warfighting needs. Floating in a bay off the Persian Gulf were prototypes of tiny unmanned vessels – cost-effective, simpler to build, and more agile – aimed at countering threats like Iranian fast boats attempting to hijack oil tankers.

Operating on a budget lower than the cost of fuel for one of the Navy’s large ships, Navy personnel and contractors had cobbled together drone boats, unmanned submersible vessels, and aerial vehicles capable of monitoring and intercepting threats across hundreds of miles in the Persian Gulf.

They are now seeking more funding to build upon their discoveries. Michael Brown, the former director of the Defense Innovation Unit involved in these unmanned drone tests, emphasized the incredible potential of this technology, citing extensive testing totaling approximately 35,000 hours and urging rapid implementation.

The disparity between the approaches in Pascagoula, Mississippi, and Bahrain illustrates one of the Navy’s most significant challenges. Never since World War II has the Navy faced such an urgent need to embrace new technologies and weapons systems to counter the growing threat from China’s formidable military.

While Navy leadership frequently talks about the imperative to innovate to address this threat, the Navy’s progress has been hampered by political and economic forces that prioritize job-driven procurement policies, yielding powerful but cumbersome warships that may not be ideally suited for the evolving mission.

Resistance to change and aversion to risk are prevalent within both the Navy and Congress. Members of Congress from shipbuilding communities exert significant influence over Pentagon budgets, directing millions of dollars in campaign contributions and lobbying efforts towards more ship construction.

In recent years, Congress has added $24 billion in extra funding for shipbuilding, surpassing other parts of the Pentagon budget. This focus on building more conventional ships has led to cuts in maintenance funding, potentially jeopardizing the Navy’s ability to cover basic maintenance and staffing costs.

Despite the urgent need for innovation, Capt. Alex Campbell, tasked with finding ways to acquire more cost-effective, faster, and innovative technology, laments the minuscule allocation of funds for these efforts.

While no one disputes the continued need for traditional warships, the open question remains: how quickly can the Navy adapt to the changing threat landscape and arm itself with more agile, cost-effective weapons and technology? While large shipyards thrive, companies specializing in unmanned platforms face struggles to stay afloat.

The Navy faces significant obstacles in its transformation, including an outdated procurement system that takes years to develop detailed specifications for new ships and secure funding. Additionally, the Navy needs to overhaul how it organizes its fleet to better integrate large platform ships with a diverse fleet of unmanned vessels for data gathering and immediate responses to threats.

Commanders comfortable with traditional tactics and concepts often resist change, hindering the Navy’s progress. While Navy leadership has expressed commitment to shifting toward “distributed maritime operations,” which combines traditional ships with unmanned drones, the pace of change remains cautious and measured.

In the heart of Mississippi, the Huntington Ingalls shipyard continues to churn out conventional warships, including the Arleigh Burke guided-missile destroyers. However, these powerful destroyers are increasingly vulnerable in a conflict with China, given the advanced Chinese military and their network of anti-ship missiles.

The Navy’s response to this challenge has been slow, with a focus on protecting and expanding traditional platforms rather than rapidly deploying armed, unmanned vessels and drones capable of approaching Chinese targets. While experts advocate for this approach, they lament the Navy’s lack of urgency in pursuing it.

The debate in Washington largely centers around preserving and expanding traditional shipbuilding, with lobbying efforts from shipbuilders and contractors influencing lawmakers. Huntington Ingalls, for example, has a massive backlog of orders and wields considerable political influence.

On the other hand, an experiment in Bahrain has tested the potential of unmanned vessels to monitor and intercept threats in the Persian Gulf. Task Force 59, as it’s known, has showcased the Navy’s ability to adapt to evolving challenges with innovative technology.

Despite the success of this experiment, the Navy has not adopted comprehensive strategies for integrating unmanned platforms across the fleet or allocated substantial funds for their acquisition.

In conclusion, the Navy faces a critical juncture in its history as it grapples with the need to modernize and adapt to new threats. While the push for conventional shipbuilding continues, the potential of unmanned technology remains largely untapped due to bureaucratic obstacles and resistance to change. The outcome of this struggle will shape the Navy’s ability to address evolving challenges and maintain its strategic edge in the years to come.



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