Readiness Trap Sprung--The Real Game Begins

October 10, 1998

Comment: #200

Discussion Thread:  #s 146 and 147


[1] Defense Daily "JOHNSON: DROP TO FEWER THAN 300 SHIPS BELOW 'COMFORT ZONE,'" October 9, 1998.

Now that the Joint Chiefs have acknowledged the military's growing readiness problems in a Congressional hearing, and the chattering class in Washington has responded dutifully with a spate of op-eds and pseudo-analyses describing the urgent need to pour more money into the defense maw, the real game of shoveling pork to the industrial-congressional wing of the military-industrial-congressional complex is about to begin.

Do not be surprised if the needs of the troops are forgotten during the coming feeding frenzy. After all, their readiness problems have served their purpose, and it is time to move on to more important things.

The attached article in Defense Daily may be a harbinger of the coming debate. The Chief of Naval Operations asserts that he needs more ship production in the Navy's budget between 2000 and 2005 (the budget the President will submit to Congress next January for Fiscal Year 2000, which begins in October 1999). Otherwise, the fleet will shrink below 300 ships, which is below his "comfort zone," given the current level of commitments. His clear implication is that going below 300 ships will hurt the sailors further (and presumably cause even more retention problems for a Navy that is already short of sailors), so, by implication, we need to buy more ships to ease deployment pressures on our people, which will increase readiness.

Modernization IS readiness QED.

This is a fallacious argument, because the Navy has retired perfectly good ships prematurely (FFG-7 guided missile frigates and SSN-688 submarines, for example) to prop up its requirements for new ship construction. The best case to illustrate this point is the submarine force, which coincidentally is also used as an illustrative example in the attached article.

The Defense Daily report says the submarine community in the Navy is worried about its capability suffering if the submarine fleet falls below 50 submarines, which will happen if new submarine construction does not reach a rate of 2 to 3 per year by 2007. It is probably true that the fleet will fall below 50 submarines unless production is increased, but what Defense Daily does not say is that the Navy has deliberately created this situation by retiring a substantial number of it top-of-the-line Los Angeles class submarines (SSN 688s) prematurely in order to make room for the new submarines, first the Seawolf and now the follow on New Attack Submarine (NSSN).

The story of the SSN-688 retirement is an extravagant example of destruction and creation Pentagon style, the aim being to justify a cold-war inspired modernization agenda. The first 15 or so SSN-688s (I am not sure of the exact number) were designed with a reactor core having about 15 years of useful life before refueling. These boats were designed for two refuelings (known as recorings), giving the SSN-688 a useful life of about 45 years. The earliest SSN-688s reached their first refueling cycle in the early 1990s. Now recoring a ship's reactor is an expensive proposition, but it is still a small fraction of the price of a new ship. Nevertheless, the Navy has decided to "save" money (the term of art is a "cost avoidance") by choosing to retire rather than recore these submarines. My latest information indicates that about 10 of these submarines would be laid up by 1999. Meanwhile, the Navy pressed ahead with three new Seawolf submarines and is now buying the New Attack Submarine.

In the good old days of the Cold War, it might have been argued that it was important to field the new submarines, because advances in the Soviet submarine force rendered our front line force increasing vulnerable. Even the fevered imagination of Tom Clancy could not make that argument today. The SSN-688 (and, for that matter, its predecessor, the SSN-637) have more than enough capability to deal with the virtually non-existent open-ocean threats now facing the US Navy. Indeed. most of the Soviet fleet is rusting away in its berths, and the major threat from its nuclear submarine force is nuclear contamination to the environment.

In fact, one could argue that open-ocean nuclear attack submarines are useless dinosaurs in the emerging era of naval combat in littoral regions, where the biggest threat is Iraq, Iran, or North Korea. According to the International Institute of Strategic Studies, the combined defense budgets of these countries are less than half of the $17 billion increase the Joint Chiefs wants to ADD to this year's defense budget. Moreover, a case could be made that much lower-cost, smaller, quieter diesel submarines are more appropriate weapons in the shallow water environments of these coastal regions. I do not know if a move to diesels is the best way to go, but the changing conditions brought about by the end of the Cold War certainly warrant a vociferous, open debate over this costly issue.

After all, the aim of sensible strategic planning should be to make current decisions that improve the match up of the military's capabilities to its current environment of threats, opportunities, and constraints, while preserving our freedom of action to cope with unpredictable future changes in those threats, opportunities, and constraints of the real world. The key point in a military-strategic sense is avoid locking yourself into a given evolutionary pathway until it is absolutely necessary, because the future consequences of today's decisions may make you vulnerable to the unpredictable effects of emerging conditions in the real world. Clearly, recoring the SSN-688s would be a far more effective way of achieving this such a match up in the near term. At the same time, recoring would keep our options open until the murky future became a little less murky.

But if we look at the same problem from the perspective of a strategic business planner in the shipyard and his allies on Capital Hill, a very different picture comes into sharp focus. Clearly, the best current decision for protecting freedom of action into the future is to lock the Navy (and the country) into an evolutionary pathway that guarantees continued production, jobs, and profits for the long term. Viewed from this perspective, retiring the SSN-688s prematurely (and foregoing the smaller sales from recoring), not only makes enormous sense, it might be a necessary condition for survival.

So, even if the Navy is correct that it needs 50 nuclear attack submarines in the post-Cold War era (itself a dubious proposition), the argument that it needs extra money to buy more submarines is, at best, a grotesquely inefficient way to maintain force structure. At worst, it suggests the Navy is working for the industrial-congressional faction that benefits from the construction program rather than the taxpayer. Readers who doubt the latter possibility are urged to review the discussion of front loading the CVN-77, particularly Comments #146 and 147 and Reference 1 to #147.

One thing is clear, however, readiness, not to mention the welfare of the over-deployed sailors, is not a major factor shaping the submarine decision.

Chuck Spinney

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