HMS Pinafore and the Navy Staff

By Peter O’Brien

Senior Fellow, London Center for Policy Research

In Gilbert & Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore Sir Joseph Porter sings that he’s done many things in his career that led to being named First Lord of the Admiralty, but none of them took place at sea, or, for that matter, had anything to do with ships. The Chorus tells us: “Stick close to your desks and never go to sea and you all may be rulers of the Queen’s Navee!”

The US Navy isn’t led by men who’ve never been to sea, but there’s growing room to wonder whether it’s led by men who know more about the Navy than Sir Joseph.

Consider our newest destroyer class, USS Zumwalt. Zumwalt has been called “the most sophisticated ship ever built,” and perhaps she is, with electric propulsion, a wave-piercing bow, new sensors, etc.; all intended to reduce the “signature” of the ship. The ship, you see, was designed to operate near shore, using its sophisticated guns to provide precision strike to support US forces ashore.
Each ship would carry (per the internet) some 700 rounds for the two guns.

Except for one small problem: the shells (originally expected to cost $35,000 each) were a tad expensive: more than $800,000 per shell. The Navy decided that $800,000 or more per round was too much and cancelled production. So, Zumwalt (and her two sister-ships) has no rounds for her two guns.

The Navy originally wanted 32 of these ships, but when costs mounted the total number was eventually cut to just three ships, at a total cost of $22 billion. Production of USS Zumwalt began in 2009, the ship’s keel was laid in 2011 and she commissioned in 2016. The second and third ships are now outfitting. Zumwalt has conducted short “operational periods” at sea but has yet to operationally deploy to the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean, and the Navy states the ship will be “operationally delivered” this coming September.
If this were just one ship, albeit a very expensive one, there would be a temptation to say: “oh well, and move on.” But, there’s every reason to believe it’s the way the Navy Staff functions these days.

Consider the statement made by a Vice Admiral last week as he talked about increased readiness: “We’re also coming to realize what that is going to cost, and how you’re going to sustain today’s fleet while continuing to grow.” The planning process is “much more challenging than anyone realized,” he said, “but we’re much smarter about our business” than just a few years ago.

He added that :“We don’t have the complex modeling to even understand what all of these costs are going to materialize to over the next 20 years,” he said, but the service is “working hard to converge on a model” to sustain the ships over the long haul.
Really? OPNAV didn’t know? What have they been doing for the past few decades?

The Navy has people who do their jobs well; the sailors at sea now in the Persian Gulf, the sailors, in particular the SEALs, deployed around the world performing their assigned missions quietly and professionally.

But, meanwhile, back at the farm, the system is breaking down.

Consider the report several weeks ago that the V-22, which will take over all delivery of cargo to our carriers within a few years, can’t seem to get past 52% readiness – 12 years after becoming operational.

Again, this would be acceptable if it were an isolated incident. But it’s not. F-35 budget woes are – sadly – well documented; $13 billion USS Ford remains non-operational 2 years after her commissioning; and the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) remains complex and expensive to maintain, too expensive, and, most importantly, unchanged since an Under Secretary of Defense found it would not survive in combat; and the list goes on.

Bad decisions have become systemic at OPNAV.

The Navy recently introduced a new promotion process to allow officers selected for promotion to be additionally re-ranked for “merit.” But, this new system was created and will be implemented by the same officers who’ve brought you this procurement and readiness mess. It’s probable that they’ll accelerate the promotion of the wrong people.

Before we go any further, the DOD needs to take a hard look at the Navy; the Navy needs new leadership, leadership that doesn’t trace its pedigree from the current crop of admirals. Or we’re going to get more Joseph Porters, and USS Zumwalts.