80 warships fall short of the US Navy to ensure national security

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As per the latest Pentagon Battle Force Ship Assessment and Requirement, released on July 18, the U.S. Navy has increased its estimated requirements for ships from 373 to 381. This leaves the Navy with a shortfall of over 80 ships, a significant gap to fill if it is to meet national security demands. 

Photo credit: Lockheed Martin

Addressing this deficiency is a matter of urgency, yet the available shipyard capacity for constructing new ships, carrying out repairs, and performing major maintenance is insufficient. Without a serious commitment to expanding the US shipyard facilities, this gap is unlikely to be bridged. 

Vice Adm. Roy Kitchener, the Commander of Naval Surface Forces, outlined another critical, yet more immediate goal earlier this year. He emphasized the need to maintain 75 surface warfare ships at “mission capable” levels, a target he refers to as his “north star” goal. 

The 75 ships in question form part of a larger pool of 164 surface warfare vessels. This includes cruisers, destroyers, littoral combat ships, mine-counter-measures ships, and amphibious warfare/assault ships. However, it excludes the Navy’s three Zumwalt class destroyers, aircraft carriers, command class ships, and expeditionary sea bases. Therefore, the aim is to ensure that nearly half of the Navy’s surface warfare ships are at least “mission capable” on any given day. 

Photo credit: @cjr1321 in Twitter

Due to operational security concerns, the exact number of ships currently at “mission capable” status is undisclosed. Nevertheless, it’s clear the Navy has struggled to maintain its ships at combat-ready levels. A May 2023 GAO report (pdf) noted that, over the past decade, sustainment challenges have worsened for 10 ship classes. This includes the 75 ships Vice Adm. Kitchener intends to keep at “mission capable” levels. 

While it might sound promising to have 75 “mission capable” surface combat ships, it’s important to clarify that in Navy terminology, being “mission capable” does not equate to being fully operational. Therefore, understanding the Navy’s classification of mission capability is crucial before setting expectations too high. 

Ships can generally be categorized as “non-mission capable” or “fully mission capable”. Non-mission-capable ships are those undergoing maintenance that prevents them from being deployed operationally. A ship is fully mission capable (pdf) when its hull machinery, command and control systems, medical treatment facilities, and manning requirements are operational and onboard. This is the standard that Navy ships should meet when deployed. 

Vice Adm. Kitchener’s “mission capable” target, which forms the basis of his readiness improvement program, does not guarantee that a ship is fully mission capable or deployable. However, his goal for the 75 ships includes achieving a greater level of readiness than is currently observed across many surface ships. Additionally, the aim of his program is to elevate non-decommissioned surface ships to full mission capability, albeit with some inherent uncertainties and ambiguities. 

Photo credit: Ashley Cowan / U.S. Navy

Vice Adm. Kitchener clarified: “When I talk about mission-capable, that sort of implies, ‘Okay, I’ve got a standard of readiness that will allow us to deploy or perhaps to accelerate to deploy, and that includes a level of certification that enables that.'” 

There is ambiguity about the speed at which a ship can reach full mission capability under Vice Adm. Kitchener’s program. This is due to varying resource availability and the differing requirements of individual ships. For instance, different Flight II Arleigh Burke destroyers would require distinct resources, personnel, and training to reach full mission capability. 

Furthermore, enhancing the readiness of littoral combat ships doesn’t have the same impact as upgrading Ticonderoga class cruisers, which have suffered from chronic under-maintenance. And why limit the goal to 75 surface warfare ships? U.S. Naval commitments surely demand more than this number. The notion of half of our fleet being non-deployable for months or even years is certainly undesirable. 

While Vice Adm. Kitchener’s program is a step in the right direction, the severity of the readiness issue within US fleet prompts the question: Why not secure the necessary resources from Congress as soon as possible to refurbish the American current surface warfare ships and bring them all back to full mission capability? This would enable all ships to be included in the regular availability cycle. Also, the readiness tracking programs could be used to increase the number of deployable ships. 

Ultimately, the only way for the Navy to reach its target of 381 ships is by fully utilizing the current fleet, which includes the powerful Ticonderoga cruisers and first-generation Burkes.

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