Mitt Romney has released few specific details about what defense policies would follow, except on naval affairs, on which his top defense issues advisor, former SECNAV John Lehman, has recently spoken in detail with DefenseNews on behalf of Gov. Romney, revealing lots of details and showing his expertise. (Of course, Sec. Lehman’s expertise and views on defense issues were known long before then, but now he has spoken officially on Gov. Romney’s behalf.) Let’s review what the Romney camp proposes and whether it makes sense.
Produce additional amphibious ships to build up the amphib fleet to 39 vessels
The Marine Corps has a stated requirement of 39 amphibious ships to be able to transport two Marine Expeditionary Brigades from the US to a war theater and ashore simoultaneously. (The Navy has agreed to provide only 33, and its budgets can support only 29.) Without 39 amphib ships, the Marine Corps will not be able to transport more than one MEB to a theater of operations and will therefore be unable to deal with a major contingency. Thus, Sec. Lehman and Gov. Romney are simply proposing to meet a stated USMC requirement, which the Obama Admin is unwilling to do.
Build additional destroyers and submarines (3 subs per year, rather than 1-2 under Obama’s plan)
The Congressional Research Service’s naval affairs specialist, Ronald O’Rourke, has found in his studies that the Navy’s shipbuilding budgets are woefully inadequate to build sufficient numbers to maintain the current number of cruisers, destroyers, and attack submarines into the 2020s and 2030s (and that’s without taking the Obama Admin’s proposal to retire 7 Navy cruisers prematurely into account). The CRS says that if current Navy plans are enacted, the Navy’s CRU/DES and submarine fleets will fall precipitously in the 2020s and 2030s, even without sequestration, and the Navy will have just 39 attack subs in the 2020s and 2030s – 13 fewer than today, far fewer than what China has today (let alone will have in the future), and 9 fewer than the Navy’s own (under)stated requirement.
Thus, the Romney-Lehman plan will simply allow the Navy to retain its current ship numbers and prevent it from declining sharply, a crucial issue given that the Navy, even today, is able to supply only 59% of Combatant Commanders’ needs for ships in general, and only 61% of their requests for submarines. Furthermore, more subs will be needed to 1) launch CM strikes; 2) hunt enemy submarines and surface ships; and 3) collect intelligence data. Thus, enacting this part of the Romney plan is not a luxury. It’s a necessity.
Producing more Super Bugs, deploying the F-35C
Although the F/A-18E/F Super Bug is crappy, it is currently the only naval attack jet in production, and to prevent flight decks from emptying, the Navy will need to keep producing it past FY2014. Ultimately, there is no alternative to the F-35C, however.
Unless a navalized Raptor is developed and fielded, that is. And that would be the best choice. The F-35C is not a fighter, anyway – it’s a strike aircraft, and its high wingloading and average T/W ratios, combined with its small internal weapon payloads and low top speed (Mach 1.61) precludes it from ever being a successful fighter. It will be an excellent strike jet but a poor fighter. The F-22, OTOH, excels in both roles. It has a very high T/W ratio, very low wing loading, a Mach 2.25 top speed, a ceiling of 65,000 feet, and an internal payload of 8 missiles (or 8 bombs and 2 A2A missiles). Only the F-22 can defeat any Russian or Chinese fighter and thus win air superiority. Only the F-22 can shoot down cruise-missile-carrying aircraft before they get within the range of American ships.
“You take an already outstanding aircraft, and make it even more effective with an investment that is a tiny fraction of the cost of developing a whole new aircraft type or, for that matter, the money that still needs to be spent on trying to get the F-35B/C to meet its already surpassed specification.(…)
Purchasing an aircraft with the ability to engage and defeat aircraft possessing the air combat capabilities of the Su-35BM Flanker E+ is a critical strategic decision for the United States. If it chooses aircraft inferior to those of potential adversaries, then not only will its Air Force risk annihilation in battle, but also the mighty power of its Naval Carrier Strike Groups is likely to be terminated in the second decade of this century. Without the navalized F/A-22N Sea Raptor, the US Navy will find itself out of the business of blue and brown water sea control, relegated to Third World counter-insurgency support roles.”
Building a new frigate class
The Littoral Combat Ship cannot act as a replacement for the FFG-7 Oliver Hazard Perry class of frigates, yet, the submarine threat (especially from China and Russia) is growing. Therefore, a new frigate class is needed. The cost of such a frigate – $600 mn – $700 mn per copy – would be low, and lower than that of an LCS with its mission module.
Given these facts, the Romney campaign should be applauded for envisaging a new frigate class, but its pledge to continue the failed LCS program – even though the LCSes have no meaningful offensive or defensive capabilities and no use for anything but the most benign combat envronments – is puzzling. Romney should pledge to terminate the LCS and instead build modern, survivable frigates, patrol boats, and minesweepers.
Build a dedicated missile defense ship based on the DDG-1000 Zumwalt class or LPD-17 Antonio class platform
The USN does indeed need a better missile defense ship than the Arleigh Burke class DDG. The Burkes have a good Aegis Combat System and radar and a load of missiles, including ABMs. But now, a newer, much larger radar (the Air and Missile Defense Radar), is needed. Unfortunately, the Burke class is too small to carry such a radar and would require a much larger hull, as well as more powerful engines, to carry it.
The DDG-1000 and LPD-17 platforms, OTOH, are big enough and powered sufficiently to carry and operate such radar. I believe it’s a mistake, however, to call for a single-purpose BMD ship. Its cost would be at least 1 bn, and perhaps 2-3 bn, per copy, and would not justify building a single-purpose platform (which is why the Navy builds multipurpose ships, rather than single-role vessels – it’s more economical to do so).
Create an 11th carrier air wing
Normally, 3-4 carriers are in refit, so at first glance, it seems 11 carrier wings are not needed. But Sec. Lehman says that carriers’ refits can be sped up to make 11 of them available, and proposes creating an 11th CAW to provide enough aircraft for all pilots for all flattops.
I do not believe it’s possible to speed up refits to make all 11 flattops available simoultaneously. It’s an unavoidable fact that at any given time, 3-4 flattops will be undergoing a refit or a Refueling Complex Overhaul, both of which are necessary. Indeed, a Nimitz class carrier spends 33% of its service life in the dockyard, rather than at sea or in its homeport. (A Ford class carrier will be available for duty for 75% of its service life.) So Sec. Lehman’s plan to have all 11 available simoultaneously is unrealistic.
The Romney campaign should be commended for its detailed plan for rebuilding the Navy and for prioritizing it. That is exactly the right choice, as future wars against any plausible adversary will be fought and won primarily at sea and in the air, not on land. Romney also pledges to build all kinds of ships needed by the USN, making it suitable for all kinds of operations ranging from missile defense to fighting submarines. He would rebuild and properly resource and maintain a Navy that is too small, overworked, and has ships failing readiness inspections; a Navy inexplicably neglected by Obama.
My only problems with his naval plans are that 1) he would continue the LCS program instead of cancelling it; and 2) he wants to build a single-purpose missile defense ship instead of a multirole one. His frigate construction plans render the LCS redundant and unneeded, and the Navy needs to devote scarce funds to multirole, not single purpose, ships.
Overall, I’d give the plan a B grade.
DISCLAIMER: I have not endorsed either Mitt Romney or Barack Obama, am not in any way involved with the Romney campaign, and this blog is NOT a pro-Romney or Romney campaign website. The purpose of this blog is, and has always been, to provide impartial, accurate analysis of the national security issues facing the United States.