As she assumes the mantle of acting chief of naval operations, Adm. Lisa Franchetti faces a growing stack of challenges in her inbox, from readiness and recruiting to force structure and innovation. Fortunately, she is uniquely positioned to pursue solutions.
A new service chief is often expected to set out a long-term vision for their force that will guide spending and activity over the next several years. As an acting CNO, Adm. Franchetti lacks the mandate to define a vision, but this is an advantage rather than a limitation. In the 21st century, long-term U.S. Navy plans are largely a distraction. What matters more is what can be accomplished in the next two to three years.
Shipbuilding is usually raised as the new CNO’s most pressing concern. The U.S. fleet is shrinking as the Navy retires more ships than it builds, and as the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy continues to grow. However, these broad characterizations miss an essential point: Within realistic peacetime budgets, the U.S. Navy cannot buy and sustain a force of more than about 280 ships given the current makeup of the fleet.
Since the Cold War, the Navy shed its less sophisticated platforms in the name of efficiency, leaving a core of capable warships and aircraft. Today’s Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, Virginia-class submarines, America-class assault ships, F-35 strike fighters and Ford-class carriers are by far the best in the world. And the new Constellation-class frigate will likely go down the same path. However, being the best comes at a price, and these platforms’ procurement and sustainment costs are high and rising faster than inflation.
Navy and political leaders should reconcile themselves to the expense of crewed platforms. In today’s contested environments, warships and aircraft need to be survivable enough to accomplish their tasks, which will increasingly consist of being weapons launchers and command nodes for uncrewed systems. These attributes are costly and will prevent a substantial growth of the fleet, absent wartime levels of spending.
Integration as innovation
Instead of getting caught up in long-term fleet design, Adm. Franchetti should accelerate the Navy’s efforts to integrate uncrewed systems into the force. The flood of commercial and government-funded uncrewed vehicles coming onto the market offers the Navy a chance to quickly expand the fleet’s capacity, adaptability and resilience while introducing new technologies that would take a decade to incorporate into crewed ships or aircraft.
The Pentagon’s inability to innovate is often blamed on its industrial-age acquisition processes, antiquated contracting methods and misunderstanding of commercial business models. These are all hurdles, but other transaction authority contracts to middle tier of acquisition pathways and competitive prototyping have begun to knock them down. The roadblocks to innovation are increasingly less about how the U.S. military buys, and more about how it integrates available technologies to support new concepts and tactics.
China, Russia, Iran and North Korea pose threats to the U.S. and its allies today, and the Navy’s fleet commanders need near-term solutions. Existing uncrewed systems and the sensing, communication, electronic warfare or weapons technologies they carry would help. But to yield those benefits, uncrewed systems need to communicate, share data, and coordinate with each other and their crewed counterparts.
The Navy’s Unmanned Task Force, Task Force 59 and now Task Force 49 reflect new models for fielding new technology that focus on integrating systems of systems from existing parts rather than building new hardware from scratch. Adm. Franchetti should institutionalize efforts like these and provide them a reliable source of funding that can compete with traditional crewed platform resource sponsors.
Return to readiness
The Navy has suffered through a decade of worsening training, maintenance, morale and recruiting. Since 2012, six ships were lost or sidelined for years due to deliberate actions or incompetence. Today, 40% of the submarine and amphibious fleets are tied to a pier awaiting overhaul.
The condition of sailors, ships and aircraft is no doubt already a concern for the Navy’s leadership. But it should also be a concern for lawmakers and civilian officials. By myopically focusing on shipbuilding and technology, Congress and the Office of the Secretary of Defense risk mortgaging the Navy of the next decade for a theoretical fleet of the future.
For example, the Navy could get more out of its fleet and make it a more attractive employer by expanding the maintenance-industrial base that sustains it and by shoring up the training and support infrastructure that ensures enough sailors with the right skills are able to go to sea.
The acting CNO could recommend that Congress add funding to public shipyards and aviation depots, surface ship maintenance accounts, and military construction for new barracks and training facilities rather than adding ships to a fleet unable to crew or maintain them.
As acting CNO, Adm. Franchetti has the luxury of focusing on the short game. For the sake of the fleet and those who run it, she should embrace the opportunity.
Bryan Clark is a senior fellow and the director of the Center for Defense Concepts and Technology at the Hudson Institute think tank.