By Louis Jacobson
During the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised to modernize the Navy and make it more nimble.
“To maintain the size of the fleet at an affordable cost, Obama will modernize the many capable ships that we now have and tilt the investment balance towards more capable, smaller combatants, while maintaining the Navy’s ability to command the seas,” Obama said. His administration “will support sea basing ships capable of supporting humanitarian missions as well as combat missions. He will increase investment in riverine craft and small coastal patrol craft, and ensure the maximum interoperability between the Navy and the Coast Guard.”
When we asked naval experts how Obama had done, they said that several aspects of this promise that are more rhetorical than substantive. For instance, the Navy is always modernizing; ships aren’t designed with humanitarian missions in mind but instead can be adapted to those missions as necesssary; and the Navy already operates closely with the Coast Guard, said Jan van Tol, a retired Navy captain now working as a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a military-focused think tank.
So we will focus on one key portion of this promise — the pledge to “tilt the investment balance towards more capable, smaller” combat vessels.
And on that pledge, the Obama administration has a mixed record.
The next generation “small,” near-coastal surface vessel for the Navy is the Littoral Combat Ship. The Navy ultimately wants 55 of them, with 12 already funded through fiscal year 2012 and 16 more planned for 2013 through 2017. However, the program has run into significant turbulence in recent years, including concerns about its effectiveness, durability and cost. One version has experienced hull cracking and engine problems, while the other has had corrosion issues.
“Some observers, citing these issues, potential future Navy operations, and potential future constraints on defense spending, have proposed truncating the number of LCSs to be procured,” the Congressional Research Service wrote in a recent study.
And indeed, the administration”s fiscal year 2013 budget deferred construction of (but did not cancel) two of them. The same budget proposal also eliminated eight Joint High Speed Vessels, a separate ship that many would put in the same “small” category Obama was citing in his promise.
The deferral followed a general shrinkage for the program in recent years. In early 2005, the Navy had been planning on building a total of between 63 and 82 Littoral Combat Ships in the long term; now that number is now 55.
Military experts told PolitiFact that there has been a shift toward smaller vessels, but only a modest shift.
Making this sort of shift will be difficult “if the Navy keeps on the path of buying carriers, attack subs, destroyers, and 12 new ballistic missile submarines,” said Charles Knight, co-director of the Project on Defense Alternatives at the Commonwealth Institute. “When funds are tight, you can’t tilt in a different direction without cutting something on the side you tilting from.”
Laura Peterson, a senior policy analyst for national security at Taxpayers for Common Sense, agreed. “It’s hard to consider that a Promise Kept when we are moving forward with building aircraft carriers and moving them into the South China sea while blowing money on a split procurement of the Littoral Combat Ship,” she said.
Finally, van Tol quibbled with one other part of the promise — that the smaller ships will be “more capable.”
“While such ships will be capable of doing certain kinds of missions more cheaply — or at less opportunity cost than using high-end ships to do them — it would be wrong to call them ‘more capable,’” he said.
All told, then, the Navy continues to purchase the primary small vessel for future years, but the program has been hit by multiple challenges that raise questions about its long-term viability. On balance, we rate this a Compromise.
Congressional Research Service, “Navy Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) Program: Background and Issues for Congress,” August 2012
Congressional Research Service, “Navy Force Structure and Shipbuilding Plans: Background and Issues for Congress,” Dec. 10, 2012
U.S. Coast Guard, congressional budget justification, fiscal year 2013
Email interview with Charles Knight, senior fellow at the Project on Defense Alternatives, Dec. 18, 2012
Email interview with Laura Peterson, a senior policy analyst for national security at Taxpayers for Common Sense, Dec. 18, 2012
Email interview with Todd Harrison, fellow with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, Dec. 18, 2012
Email interview with Jan van Tol, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, Dec. 18, 2012