There's 'something wrong with our bloody ships today'

There's 'something wrong with our bloody ships today'
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At the Battle of Jutland in 1916, as two of his battlecruisers exploded under withering fire from the German High Seas Fleet,  Royal Navy Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty in desperation said, “There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today.”  

Ironically, as the nominee to become the next secretary of the Navy, Carlos del Toro, was testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, a chastening report titled “The Fighting Culture of the United States Surface Navy,” commissioned by Sen. Tom CottonTom Bryant CottonOvernight Defense & National Security — Milley becomes lightning rod Joint Chiefs Chairman Milley becomes lightning rod on right Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by Climate Power — Senate Democrats ding Biden energy proposal MORE (R-Ark.) and Reps. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), Dan CrenshawDaniel CrenshawGOP seeks Biden referendum over vaccine mandates The Memo: Biden comes out punching on COVID-19 The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by AT&T - Texas's near abortion ban takes effect MORE (R-Texas) and Mike GallagherMichael (Mike) John GallagherBipartisan House group introduces legislation to set term limit for key cyber leader 20,000 Afghan evacuees housed at military bases in five states: report Absent Democrats give Republicans new opening on Afghanistan MORE (R-Wisc.), was released.  The substance of the report echoed Beatty’s statement about what was wrong with our ships and by extension our Navy. 

Unfortunately, the report was damning in a different sense. In 2010, an investigation of the Surface Navy revealed most of the same flaws and problems. Following the collisions of USS Fitzgerald and USS McCain with merchant ships in 2017, the investigations done by the uniformed Navy and by the secretary arrived at findings and conclusions repeated in this most recent report, raising two penetrating questions.


First, what has the Navy done to rectify these failings and why have those efforts not succeeded? Second, do any of these “cultural” shortcomings apply to the rest of the Navy and to the other services as well? With current annual defense spending at $715 billion, surely Congress and the nation need to know the state of its military to sail in harm’s way and carry out the direction of the National Security Act to be prepared “to conduct sustained operations incident to combat,”  on land, sea, air, space and cyber. 

One explanation for these problems is that with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the evisceration of Saddam Hussein’s army in 1991, no military peer existed. After Sept. 11, the military’s focus shifted to counter insurgency and nation-building in conditions where adversaries lacked organized armies, navies and air forces. With the emergence of Chinese and Russian military power, that has changed. But despite the current National Defense Strategy’s emphasis on competing, deterring and, if war comes, defeating peer and near peer enemies, how ready is the American military and its allies to take on these tasks? 

The last major naval battle the U.S. Navy fought was at Okinawa during World War II beginning in April 1945. Of course, the Navy fought in Korea, Vietnam and the Persian Gulf. But these were not naval wars. And while the Army, Marines and Air Force likewise were engaged more prominently in those conflicts, for the past two decades, none faced a well-equipped military.

When Sen. Cotton asked del Toro during the hearing to respond to the report, del Toro said he would examine each finding.  Frankly, that response was underwhelming. Further, the record of each of the services in procuring advanced weapons systems, from F-35 stealth fighters to the USS Ford and USS Zumwalt, as well as the Army’s cancellation of the very expensive Future Combat Systems, is not good or promising for the acquisition of newer capabilities.  Cost overruns, delays in entering active service and operational failures were also prevalent. Despite intentions to fix the acquisition process, how much progress has been made?

In fairness, the entire budgetary, oversight and acquisition processes, overladen with excess rules, regulations and red tape (once called by a former Navy secretary “the real Washington monuments”), are so constraining that one wonders if they were designed by the old KGB as no rational person would have proposed them. This leads to several conclusions.


Congress should require a major and classified review of the Defense Department’s ability to conduct sustained operations against a peer competitor to assess strengths, weaknesses and failings, including assessments of each service and of the total or joint force.

Next, even though hundreds of prior acquisition studies have been conducted with minor impact, that does not mean these attempts should be abandoned. Twenty plus years from when a new program starts until it enters service, given the extraordinary technological advances, is ludicrous. The United States simply cannot remain competitive if the current system is not changed.

Finally, as the administration is conducting its review of the National Defense Strategy, it must set aims and objectives that are realistic, well-defined, executable and affordable. And the strategy must outline how the Department of Defense and the Pentagon will resolve the deficiencies noted in this latest report, not only in the Navy but, where applicable, in the other services.

Otherwise, at some future point, we will sadly say, “There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today.”

Harlan Ullman, Ph.D., is senior adviser at the Atlantic Council. His forthcoming book is, “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large.”