NavWeek: Pivotal Needs

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Tom Donilon, the nation’s security adviser, recently provided a short list of what will be important – from a military perspective – for a successful U.S. focus shift to Asia and the Pacific and it’s critical to note what he included as well as what he did not.

To first tackle the obvious, Donilon highlights the need for so-called stealthy aircraft or ships like F-22 Raptors, F-35 Joint Strike Fighters (JSFs) and submarines.

The view of the aircraft side of that ledger is a smudged one at best. The U.S. Air Force has had trouble keeping its Raptors in the air lately and the Pentagon can’t seem to get the JSF program off the ground, or at least keep it out of turbulence.

When it comes to submarines, though, well that’s a different story. The Virginia-class attack sub program has become a model for acquisition and production that the U.S. Navy has tried to emulate for other shipbuilding efforts. The only question that seems to haunt the Virginias is how the service can afford more and lawmakers have been squeezing hard to make that happen.

Another submarine program that has been equally – if not more – successful operationally has been the SSGN guided-missile fleet of converted SSBN ballistic boats that can carry missiles, undersea vehicles and a whole assortment of payloads that most of the country will never know about until the next book edition of “Blind Man’s Bluff” on secret sub missions comes out decades from now.

The Navy brass is wisely trying to find common ground for Virginia and SSGN systems and such attempts could pay off not only financially, but operationally as well.

Donilon also cites continuing need for radars and other equipment or platforms capable of doing ballistic missile defense (BMD) – and the Navy is certainly no stranger to such efforts.

Altogether, the proposed Navy acquisition programs for the ships, radars and combat systems for BMD and related missions could be worth $121.8 billion or more over the next few decades, according to an Aviation Week Intelligence Network (AWIN) review and analysis of government reports. Add in the missiles the government plans to buy and that total could rise to as much as $127.3 billion, the analysis shows.

Between July 2012 and the first week of March this year, the Missile Defense Agency and U.S. Navy have spent or obligated to spend about $4.6 billion for Aegis equipment, combat system improvements, research, ship upgrades or missiles related to the BMD effort, another AWIN analysis of Pentagon contracts during that time shows.

When options and other potential contract modifications are considered, the tally rises to about $10.2 billion, the analysis shows.

But notably lacking from the national security adviser’s summation was any mention of the Navy’s small-ship focus on vessels like the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) and Joint High Speed Vessel.

These are the ships, the Navy brass contends, which will allow the nation to not only travel to many Asian coastal areas mostly inaccessible to its blue-water big-ship fleet, but also create more opportunity for the U.S. to participate in joint exercises with foreign partners who previously were a bit put off from playing with bigger U.S. vessels.

What’s particularly troubling about Donilon’s omission is that commanding officers for both LCS and JHSV fleets say Special Forces officials and other “spook” types have been aboard their vessels, salivating at the prospects of using available volume, speed and flexibility for all kinds of black ops.

Given the current climate, the Navy needs all the supporters it can get for any of its prized shipbuilding programs and the service needs to give the national security staff some PowerPoints – or some better ones – about those programs.

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