Cameron Leuthy, Bloomberg Government, Nov 11
"Boomer" supporters, rejoice.
The Navy's Ohio-class submarine (or boomer) replacement program is among several that remain at the top of the list of 2017 Navy budget priorities.
Aircraft carriers and continued F-35 Joint Strike Fighter procurement for force projection will also probably be winners, but amphibious ships may get less money.
That's just one set of trade-offs the Navy faces as it implements the 2015 National Military Strategy while staying within tighter-than-hoped-for budget caps.
This analysis, which previews the Navy's fiscal 2017 budget request, is the last in a series, including an overview, a close-up look at the Air Force, and a drill-down into the Army.
Navy ship classes have to fight each other for dollars.
Every year, the Congressional Budget Office finds the shipbuilding budget is far too small to pay for all ships in the Navy plan.
Yet for years the Navy has managed to keep its fleet size relatively stable -- today, it lists 272 battle force ships. It had 278 in 2007. The Navy has accomplished this partly by moving the procurement dates farther into the future and partly by keeping ships in service longer.
This delicate balance may be destroyed by the enormous cost of the Ohio-replacement submarine.
The Ohio is a ballistic missile submarine, also known as a boomer. Its replacement is widely projected to increasingly squeeze out other programs. In 2014, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus that without extra funding, the Ohio replacement program could "gut" the Navy's shipbuilding budget for more than a decade.
To make room for other ships, some in Congress have tried , and so far failed, to get the Ohio replacement sub funded outside the Navy's budget.
The money will have to come from different areas of shipbuilding, aircraft and operating budgets, but those programs are tightly linked to other missions.
The new National Military Strategy calls on the U.S. to increase its focus on interstate conflict, even though the probability of such a war is low.
According to the strategy, the military should remain ready to conduct "limited" contingency and stability operations, but large-scale conventional operations remain a lower probability.
The strategy can be used to justify continued Army end-strength reductions, lower readiness requirements and implicit acceptance of higher risks -- such as being unable to get enough forces to the fight in time to limit casualties.
Army cuts put more pressure on the Navy-Marine Corps team to conduct peacetime presence missions and force projection during crises. The Navy and Marines, more so than the Army, would have to "respond to crisis and conduct limited contingency operations," a key mission in the strategy.
Those missions are performed using aircraft carriers and amphibious ships.
Operating Aircraft Carriers
Based on the new strategy, aircraft carriers would seem to be a prime contender for Navy resources. Budget constraints and extended deployment schedules have strained the Navy's aircraft carrier fleet.
The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 > will force the Navy to make trade-offs to afford operating all its carriers in fiscal 2016, pressuring amphibious ship programs.
The size of the aircraft carrier and amphibious fleets drive development and fielding of many other major weapons, including the Navy and Marine Corps versions of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
Cutting back on aircraft carriers is harder than cutting back on Marine Corps amphibious ships. The Navy is required by law to have 11 aircraft carriers in the fleet, and a portion of its carrier task forces are always forward-deployed.
While a portion of the Marine Corps' amphibious ships are also always forward-deployed, the Navy doesn't have a legal minimum number of amphibious ships to get the Marines to the fight.
Marine Corps Wishes
The Marine plan to continue end-strength reductions to 182,000 in 2017 began in 2013 when the total was 202,000. However, funding for that smaller force isn't a sure thing.
Further reductions in end-strength could jeopardize readiness and amphibious ship purchases.
Yet while it's reducing end-strength, the Marine Corps wants more amphibious ships to conduct missions such as humanitarian response to natural disasters, noncombatant evacuation, and contingency operations that require putting larger units ashore.
There are 30 "amphibs" in the fleet today. The Marine Corps says that simultaneously deploying two Marine Expeditionary Brigades (MEBs) requires at least 33 amphibious ships. The Marine Corps wants 34 amphibs by fiscal 2020 , and the Navy and Marine Corps would ideally like to have 38 of them.
Yet even 34 amphibs is far more than the roughly nine that they're using today: The Navy-Marine Corps team typically forward-deploys three Marine Expeditionary Units, each embarked on three ships.
Sustaining two deployed MEBs with equipment, supplies and ammunition also requires 14 Maritime Prepositioning vessels, the size of the fleet expected by the end of 2015.
The Marines have accepted as manageable the operational risks of having only 34 ships, but argue that the demands from combatant commands push the requirement closer to 54 ships -- a number that is far larger than they probably will get.
Amphibious Procurement Plans
When money is tight, choices have to be made.
The fiscal 2016 budget request assumed the Defense Department would get a 7 percent increase compared with the spending caps in law in both fiscal 2016 and 2017. Under the budget agreement, DOD would get an increase of about 4.8 percent in 2016 and 2.8 percent in 2017. The Navy's 2016 five-year plan requested multiple amphibious ships, including:
-- One new troop transport, the LPD-17, built by Huntington Ingalls Industries Inc., authorized in S. 1356, the revised National Defense Authorization Act.
-- One replacement LHA in 2017, part of a plan > to buy seven LHA-6s at a rate of one ship every four to seven years. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and the MV-22
Osprey will fly off the LHA, which is also being built by Huntington Ingalls.
-- One new type of amphibious ship, the LX(R), would be authorized in 2020, the first of 11 ships that CBO estimates would cost $1.9 billion each. The type would replace 12 aging Whidbey Island/Harpers Ferry (LSD-41/49) class amphibious ships that are capable of launching helicopters and hovercraft.
-- A fifth Mobile Landing Platform (MLP) would be authorized in 2017. The MLP is a floating base or transfer station that can be prepositioned so that it can support other ships, such as the LPD-17, when they are deployed. The third MLP, the first specifically built for this purpose and constructed by General Dynamics Corp., was delivered in June. A fourth MLP, authorized in 2014, is scheduled for delivery in 2017.
Good and Bad News
The Ohio-class submarine replacement program probably will remain a top priority despite its mammoth -- $95.8 billion -- acquisition cost, according to a Congressional Research Service report. Aircraft carrier task forces and amphibious ships must be ready to respond to crises and conduct limited contingency operations.
Yet with the budget deal, the Pentagon and the Navy face enormous demands and intense budget pressures that can't be resolved through finding efficiencies alone.
Amphibious ship purchases may not fare well in a fight for dollars with the Ohio replacement, money to operate 11 carriers and continued purchases of the F-35.
Cutting other Navy programs, and extracting savings from elsewhere in DOD, would be fought tooth and nail by other components.