Defense Secretary Gates warns shipbuilding budget unlikely to grow

Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Monday warned that the shipbuilding budget is unlikely to continue growing and urged the Navy and Marine Corps to ready for new challenges posed by modern militaries using unconventional tactics and terrorist groups with advanced weapons. 

“We have to ask whether the nation can really afford a Navy that relies on $3 [billion] to $6 billion destroyers, $7 billion submarines and $11 billion carriers,” Gates said during a speech at the Navy League’s annual Sea Air and Space symposium. 

Resetting and repairing the Army’s and Marine Corps’ equipment, worn out after almost a decade of wars, will suck up many of the Pentagon’s resources in the future, as will the long-term and “inviolable” costs associated with the care of troops and their families, Gates warned. 

“We simply cannot afford to perpetuate the status quo that heaps more and more expensive technologies onto fewer and fewer platforms — thereby risking a situation where some of our greatest capital expenditures go toward weapons and ships that could potentially become wasting assets,” Gates said. 

Gates called for shifting investments toward long-range unmanned aircraft and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities; new sea-based missile defenses; a submarine force with expanded roles that is prepared to conduct more missions “deep inside an enemy’s battle network”; and an increase in submarine strike capabilities as well as the development of smaller and unmanned underwater technologies. 

Gates decried the erosion of the U.S. edge on precision-guided weapons, in particular the long-range, anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles.

“This is of particular concern with aircraft carriers and other large, multibillion-dollar blue-water surface combatants, where, for example, a Ford-class carrier plus its full complement of the latest aircraft would represent potentially $15 [billion] to $20 billion worth of hardware at risk,” Gates told the Navy League audience. 

Gates said that potential adversaries are aware of the unparalleled advantage the U.S. Navy has with its destroyers, carriers, amphibious ships, destroyers and submarines. That is why none of them, despite investing in their naval programs, “intends to bankrupt themselves by challenging the U.S. to a shipbuilding competition.” 

Instead, potential adversaries are investing in weapons designed to neutralize U.S. advantages by threatening American sea and air assets as well as their supporting networks. 

For example, Hezbollah, a non-state actor, used anti-ship missiles against Israel’s navy in 2006, and Iran is combining ballistic and cruise missiles, anti-ship missiles, mines and swarming speedboats in order to challenge U.S. naval power in the Middle East, Gates explained. 

Gates also challenged the notion that the Navy needs 11 carrier strike groups through 2040. 

“Consider the massive over-match the U.S. already enjoys. Consider, too, the growing anti-ship capabilities of adversaries. Do we really need 11 carrier strike groups for another 30 years when no other country has more than one? Any future plans must address these realities,” Gates said. 

The defense chief also once again made the case against a new ballistic submarine, the SSBN (X), arguing that in the later part of the decade those submarines, projected to cost $7 billion apiece, would eat up the lion’s share of the Navy’s shipbuilding resources. 

“Current requirements call for a submarine with the size and payload of a boomer, and the stealth of an attack submarine,” Gates said. 

Gates said the Navy also has been called on to do more missions that fall on the low end of the conflict spectrum, a requirement that will not go away. 

“Whether the mission is counterinsurgency, piracy or security assistance, among others, new missions have required new ways of thinking about the portfolio of weapons we buy,” Gates said. “In particular, the Navy will need numbers, speed and the ability to operate in shallow water, especially as the nature of war in the 21st century pushes us toward smaller, more diffuse weapons and units that increasingly rely on a series of networks to wage war.” 

The Navy has responded with investments in more special warfare capabilities, small patrol coastal vessels, a riverine squadron and joint high-speed vessels, Gates said. 

The Navy also accelerated the buy of the Littoral Combat Ship, which, despite its development problems, “is a versatile ship that can be produced in quantity and go places that are either too shallow or too dangerous for the Navy’s big, blue-water surface combatants,” Gates said, adding that the new approach to the LCS buy “should provide an affordable … and sustainable path to producing the quantity of ships we need.”