April 10, 2022

The FY23 US Navy Budget

The USN recently published its proposed budget for FY23, and it's made headlines for the decision to scrap 24 ships, with many calling this an obviously terrible decision in the face of recent events. I'm not so sure this is the case, but it's worth taking a deeper look to sort this all out.

Before we start, it's worth putting this all in context. This budget is a proposal worked out by the Navy and the Biden Administration, and then sent to Congress, which actually decides what to spend. And there is a very long history of Congress ignoring the requests and doing what it wants, usually framed as "Congress is buying the Army tanks the Army doesn't want" with the strong implication that it's just wasteful pork. Some of it is pork, but a lot of it is the services knowing all of this and "cutting" things that Congress likes so they'll get more money to put them back in the final budget. The A-10 fleet has probably been the leading beneficiary of this practice, but it happens elsewhere, too. I suspect that is a major driver of what's been happening here.

Which brings us to the actual budget proposal, and what ships the Navy has put on the chopping block. Most of the attention has focused on the 9 units of the Freedom/LCS-1 type, the latest of which was delivered in August of 2020. The rest of the list has five Ticonderogas, four Whidbey Island class LSDs, two Los Angeles class SSNs, two older oilers and two expeditionary transfer docks. This is a lot compared to the 9 ships being ordered (two Virginias, two Burkes, a Constellation, an LHA-6, an LPD-17, a new oiler and a salvage tug), particularly when those ships won't enter service for years.

But if we take the Navy's claims at face value, does this actually make sense? On one hand, every dollar we spend crewing and maintaining older ships is a dollar we don't have to spend on building new and better ships. On the other hand, a ship on the slipway isn't that useful in wartime, and the current fleet is already stretched pretty tight. But each ship is different, and we should evaluate them individually.

First, the LCS-1s. As would perhaps be expected given my opinions on the program, I'm pretty positive on this proposal, and it looks like the Navy is finally coming around to my way of thinking. There are three stated reasons for the cuts here. First, the LCS-1 has had issues with the system that combines power from the gas turbines and diesels. This is annoying to fix, but not that expensive in the grand scheme of things. But it is a show-stopper given another problem, the failure of the new ASW mission module for the LCS. The latest plan (within the last year) was to fit the LCS-1 with the ASW module, presumably leaving the LCS-2 with the MCM module. But in the last few months, they've given up on the ASW module, apparently because of hydrodynamics problems on the towed sonar, thus removing a major mission for the type. Lastly, fleet costs are a thing, and I suspect this is a prelude to getting rid of the LCS-1 design entirely in a few years. That will be a good thing, although it's sad how long this has gone on. Hopefully, we can find the ships a good home and get a little bit of it back. Or at the very least, we can cut the spare part buys and strip the existing ships for parts.

Most of the rest of the ships in question are nearing the end of their service lives. The two Los Angeles class boats are the oldest in the fleet, and we're just pulling them a few years early. I am more concerned about the Ticos, but they're also getting a bit long in the tooth, and I suspect they're getting expensive to keep around given the USN's repeated requests to retire a few. Doing this would probably let them consolidate spares, because dealing with obsolete components would be expensive.

The rest of the ships are a mixed bag. The oilers are also old, and probably in the "better to gap for a few years" category before the new class is completed. The LSDs are a big chunk of that force, but the ships are nearing the end of their lifespans already. I'm still not sure what the amphibious force is going to look like in a few years, and until I have a better idea, it's hard to judge this plan. Notable is that the replacement of these ships by LPD-17 variants is being cut short, with the LPD in this year's budget being the last of the type. I suspect that the Expeditionary Transfer Dock cuts are also being driven by the changes coming to the amphibious force, which have rendered their planned role more or less obsolete. Not sure if that's a good thing.

Of course, as mentioned above, it's almost certain that Congress will tamper with this program before it becomes law. For instance, in FY22 the Navy requested 2 Virginias, a Burke, a Constellation, an oiler, two salvage tugs and a new ocean surveillance ship. In the final budget, they got all of them, plus an extra Burke, an extra oiler, an Expeditonary Support Base and two extra fast transports. Among the ships slated for decommissioning were four LCSs and two Ticos, with the LCSs surviving unscathed and only five Ticos authorized to be cut in the budget finally passed last month, and then put into this year's budget again for reasons that I have clearly spent too little time in Washington to understand. I disagree with parts of this (the LCSs should have gone, and the fast transports were obvious pork) but it clearly shows that what we have in front of us isn't what we'll get.

Anyone interested in looking more into this should check out the Navy's budget website, which has lots of materials on this going back to 1997. Or you can find better uses for your time, like banging your head against a brick wall. But in sum, this is only slightly out of the ordinary, and the cuts will not be as deep as the Navy is proposing.

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