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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Faced with evolving threats, US Navy struggles to change

The 800-crew Huntington Ingalls shipyard in Pascagoula, Miss., on May 19, 2023. The complex is one of seven major U.S. Navy shipbuilding yards across the country.

By Eric Lipton

A symphony of sorts echoed through the sprawling shipyard on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi — banging, hissing, beeping, horns, bells and whistles — as more than 7,000 workers hustled to fill orders fueled by the largest shipbuilding budget in the Navy’s history.

The surge in spending, $32 billion for this year alone, has allowed the Huntington Ingalls shipyard to hire thousands of additional people to assemble guided missile destroyers and amphibious transport ships. “More ships are always better,” said Kari Wilkinson, the president of the shipyard, pointing to the efficiencies that come with a steady flow of contracts and the jobs they create.

But the focus from Washington on producing a stream of new warships is also creating a fleet that some inside the Pentagon think is too wedded to outdated military strategies and that the Navy might not be able to afford to keep running in decades to come.

Half a world away, at a U.S. Navy outpost in Bahrain, a much smaller team was testing out a very different approach to the service’s 21st-century warfighting needs.

Bobbing in a small bay off the Persian Gulf was a collection of tiny unmanned vessels, prototypes for the kind of cheaper, easier-to-build and more mobile force that some officers and analysts of naval warfare said was already helping to contain Iran and could be essential to fighting a war in the Pacific.

Operating on a budget that was less than the cost of fuel for one of the Navy’s big ships, Navy personnel and contractors had pieced together drone boats, unmanned submersible vessels and aerial vehicles capable of monitoring and intercepting threats over hundreds of miles of the Persian Gulf, like Iranian fast boats looking to hijack oil tankers.

Now they are pleading for more money to help build on what they have learned.

“It’s an unbelievable capability — we have already tested it for something like 35,000 hours,” said Michael Brown, who was the director of the Defense Innovation Unit, which helped set up the unmanned drone tests in Bahrain. “So why are we not fielding that as fast as possible?”

The contrast between the approaches in Pascagoula and Bahrain helps to illustrate one of the biggest challenges facing the Navy.

At no moment since World War II has the service faced a more urgent demand to embrace new technologies and weapons systems, given the rising threat from a now formidable Chinese military.

The Navy’s top brass talks frequently about the need to innovate to address the threat presented by China. The Defense Department’s own war games show that the Navy’s big-ship platforms are increasingly vulnerable to attack.

But the Navy, analysts and current and former officials say, remains lashed to political and economic forces that have produced jobs-driven procurement policies that yield powerful but cumbersome warships that may not be ideally suited for the mission it is facing.

An aversion to risk-taking — and the breaking of traditions — mixed with a bravado and confidence in the power of the traditional fleet has severely hampered the Navy’s progress, several recently departed high-ranking Navy and Pentagon officials told The New York Times.

“The U.S. Navy is arrogant,” said Lorin Selby, who retired this summer as a rear admiral and the chief of naval research after a 36-year career in which he helped run many of the Navy’s major acquisition units. “We have an arrogance about, we’ve got these aircraft carriers, we’ve got these amazing submarines. We don’t know anything else. And that is just wrong.”

Resistance to risk-taking and change for the military can also be found among members of Congress.

Leadership on Pentagon budgets on Capitol Hill is dominated by lawmakers from shipbuilding communities like Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss. The industry directs tens of millions of dollars of campaign contributions to key lawmakers and mounts lobbying campaigns pushing the Navy to build more ships.

In just the past eight years, Congress has added $24 billion in extra money to build ships, more than any other part of the Pentagon budget, even as lawmakers have cut spending on repairs to the fleet, according to an analysis by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

Congress has also balked at efforts to retire older ships that the Navy says provide only marginal warfighting capacity, leaving the service at risk of not being able to afford basic maintenance and staffing costs.

The result, officials acknowledge, has been to bring into focus how slow the Navy has been to provide the funding and attention to the rapid innovation that many analysts say is necessary — even as money pours into conventional shipbuilding programs.

Capt. Alex Campbell of the Navy, whose job this year has been to find ways to buy cheaper, faster, more innovative technology, said the amount of money that had been allocated to the effort so far was minuscule.

“It’s the dust particle on the pocket lint of the budget,” he said.

No one is arguing that the Navy no longer needs traditional warships; in fact, a large fleet of fast-attack submarines would be particularly vital in any conflict with China.

To many analysts, industry executives and current and former military officials, the open question is how quickly the Navy can embrace the tactical opportunities by also arming itself with a new generation of weapons that are more maneuverable, cheaper to build and less devastating to lose. Even as the big shipyards are booming, companies that make unmanned platforms like those being evaluated in Bahrain are struggling to remain afloat.

“Right now, they are still building a largely 20th-century Navy,” said Bryan Clark, a former Navy budget planner who serves as a consultant to the service.

Navy leaders have said they are committed to shifting to a new operational approach they are calling “distributed maritime operations,” a combination of traditional ships and unmanned drones that will allow them to spread out their forces.

In a statement to the Times, Carlos Del Toro, the secretary of the Navy, said the service had made “profound progress” over the past two years in starting to modernize its fleet. It is preparing to take additional steps soon, he said, including the creation of a unit called the Disruptive Capabilities Office.

“I am doing everything in my power to ensure that we stay at the forefront of building the warfighting capabilities and industries of the future,” said Del Toro, a former commander of a guided missile destroyer built in Pascagoula. “We are committed to innovation and advancing technological advances to maintain our strategic edge as a nation.”

But Adm. Michael M. Gilday, who until last month served as the chief of naval operations, conceded that the Navy had been taking only cautiously measured steps.

“Revolutionary change is really hard, and we’ve learned sometimes the hard way when we move too fast, we make big mistakes,” Gilday said in a speech this year. “And so our path really has been more evolutionary. It’s been more deliberate, but it has been focused.”

A Mississippi empire

Thousands of workers in hard hats pour through the gates at the Huntington Ingalls shipyard in Pascagoula before the pre-dawn horn sounds at the start of a shift, offering a regular reminder of what an enormous operation the shipbuilding effort is here — the largest manufacturing employer in Mississippi.

The most prominent of the four classes of ships the shipyard produces are the Arleigh Burke guided-missile destroyers, 509-foot vessels that are considered the workhorses of the Navy.

The destroyers can handle a range of missions, including hunting down and destroying enemy submarines, attacking other ships in nearby waters and firing precision missiles to strike far-off targets on land. The Navy already has 73 of them and has deals to build 16 more, at a price tag of about $2 billion apiece.

The problem is that despite their awesome power, these types of destroyers, like certain other traditional warships, are increasingly vulnerable — especially in a conflict with China over Taiwan, according to repeated war game exercises conducted by the Pentagon, its contractors and outside consultants.

Experiment in the Persian Gulf

On a bay just off the Persian Gulf, two very unusual Navy vessels moved about: one built for speed, the other endurance, but both unmanned. They were there to help track and intercept threats from Iran, which has been seizing oil tankers and harassing ships passing through a vital choke point of international commerce.

One, the T-38 Devil Ray, which can reach speeds of up to 90 mph — faster than just about any other vessel in the Navy — was awaiting its next assignment. Alongside it was the Ocean Aero Triton, whose solar-power system allows it to operate for three months at a time without any need to refuel.

The experiment behind the Devil Ray and the Triton, nicknamed Task Force 59, has become a fulcrum for the debate over whether the military is moving fast enough to embrace new and more flexible ways of adapting to a changing threat environment.

The effort in Bahrain took off with the support of Vice Adm. Brad Cooper, the commander of Navy forces in the region. But it was a shoestring effort, led by Capt. Michael D. Brasseur, who had worked on a similar project for NATO.

The Navy had already contracted with traditional suppliers like Boeing and L3Harris to develop unmanned vessels with names like Orca, Snakehead and Sea Hunter. But several of those projects were already years behind schedule and tremendously over budget — or had such severe problems they were quietly canceled.

The team in Bahrain took a very different approach, turning to smaller, more entrepreneurial companies and sidestepping the bureaucracy that slows and complicates big weapons programs. It found partners in companies like Saildrone, Anduril, Shield AI and Martac, which had never built a major Navy ship.

Given that war games had demonstrated the need for thousands of unmanned devices for surveillance, interdiction and attack purposes to prepare for any conflict with China, Selby pushed colleagues at the Pentagon to figure out a way to rapidly buy thousands of similar devices for the Navy to use worldwide.

But again and again, he said, he ran into roadblocks.

“You now run up against the machine — the people who just want to kind of continue to do what we’ve always done,” Selby said. “The budgeting process, the congressional process, the industrial lobbying efforts. It is all designed to continue to produce what we’ve already got and make it a little better. But that is not good enough.”

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