'Falling Behind': Navy Criticized for Delays in Shipbuilding, Deployments that May Leave US Behind China

Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro tours Bayonne Dry Dock
Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro tours Bayonne Dry Dock, Aug. 16, 2023. (U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Shannon E. Renfroe)

Lawmakers dug into the Navy's shipbuilding efforts on Wednesday, saying that it is "behind" in providing ships to stay apace of global competition, specifically with China.

The criticisms were raised when Department of the Navy leaders, including Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Eric Smith, met with members of the House Appropriations Committee's defense panel to discuss the Navy's shipbuilding and maintenance shortfalls.

The Navy has admitted that all of its key shipbuilding programs -- from the new Columbia-class submarine to the new Constellation-class frigate -- are facing yearslong delays, which come amid cases of ships being delayed to deploy because of mounting maintenance issues.

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"I'm concerned that the Navy is falling behind -- it is behind," Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif., the chairman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, said Wednesday. "The Navy continues to retire ships faster than it builds them, and I'm troubled by the Navy's request to decommission 10 ships before the end of their service life and build only six."

While the service pointed to the fact that many of those programs are building first-in-class ships as part of the issue, its top official, Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro, has also been vocal in faulting shipyards and manufacturers, as well.

"I need you to deliver platforms and capabilities on time and on budget without excuses," Del Toro said in February at a Navy conference in San Diego, California.

"Many of you are making record profits, as evidenced by your quarterly financial statements," Del Toro said, claiming that some companies "goose ... stock prices through stock buybacks, deferring promised capital investments, and other accounting maneuvers that to some seem to prioritize stock prices that drive executive compensation rather than making the needed fundamental investments."

The result is that, while the sea service told Congress last year that it needs 381 ships as well as up to 150 unmanned vessels to meet its national defense obligations, the most optimistic version of its plans has it reaching that goal in around 20 years.

In addition to the total fleet size, lawmakers voiced concerns about the state of the ships that the Navy is currently operating.

"I am more concerned about ship readiness," Rep. Mike Garcia, R-Calif., said at the hearing Wednesday. "I think that the metrics are not just bad, but I also think that the metrics are not truly honest."

One of the most visible areas of concern has become the Navy's amphibious ship fleet, which the Marine Corps uses to deploy the bulk of its forces around the globe.

The Navy is required by law to maintain 31 amphibious ships but, in an interview with Military.com in January, Lt. Gen. Karsten Heckl, the commanding general of Marine Corps Combat Development Command and deputy commandant for combat development and integration -- the Marine who heads the service's modernization efforts, said that that number of ships requires better maintenance to be effective.

"When we say 31, that's based on a better readiness than we're seeing today," Heckl said. "So, it simply translates that if the machines are never going to reach the aspirational goals of 75-80% [readiness] then we're going to have to have more ships if we're really going to get back to having a crisis response force, always deployed, always forward -- that's going to mean an increase in numbers."

Military.com reported that a series of investigations into the USS Boxer -- an amphibious assault ship that was months late in deploying -- found that the Navy, along with shipyard personnel, not only struggled to correctly repair the aging vessel, but also that its engineering department was poorly led and suffering from issues that ranged from inexperience to outright allegations of assault that directly impacted the ship's ability to get out to sea.

"The Navy's Pacific Fleet was less ready and less capable because of USS Boxer's shortfalls," the admiral who commissioned one of the reports noted in his letter accepting the results.

Meanwhile, the Navy's top officer, Adm. Lisa Franchetti, told reporters Monday that the Boxer's sister ship, the USS Wasp may also be delayed.

"We're seeing some potential delays on Wasp. We're trying to look ahead to make sure that we can, I want to say, nip this in the bud," Franchetti said.

Ship watchers spotted the Wasp departing Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia, in early March only to return hours later, apparently with some tugs alongside.

Lt. Cmdr. Dave Carter, a spokesman for Naval Surface Force Atlantic, later told Military.com that "during the underway, the ship discovered an engineering irregularity" and "returned to port to effect repairs."

Most of the discussion revolving around the Navy's shortcomings focused on competition with China, with many lawmakers expressing concerns that the U.S. military is not meeting its primary pacing challenge.

"Frankly, the pivot to the Pacific has not been fully realized," Garcia said. "And I think that's by any metric. ... We are either falling behind or losing our lead relative to China."

Those concerns were not limited to the Pacific. Lawmakers cited the Bataan Amphibious Ready Group's most recent deployment to the Middle East as an example of the Navy's lacking ship readiness.

"The Department of the Navy's capability and capacity is further eroded by the maintenance delays that plague the fleet," Calvert said. "The committee continues to see the Navy spend every cent appropriated for ship maintenance, but complete fewer maintenance availabilities than forecasted."

"This creates both near-term risk to the fleet readiness and a bow wave of costly future maintenance requirements," he added.

Calvert cited the "repeated extensions" of the Bataan Amphibious Ready Group, or ARG, during its deployment to the Middle East this year, which became increasingly important in the aftermath of the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas on Israel, sparking turmoil and war in the region.

Military.com was first to report that the Bataan was delayed at least twice from returning from deployment. That deployment lasted roughly eight months, which lawmakers attributed to delays in maintenance.

In his submitted statement to Congress, Smith said that he and Franchetti have "locked shields" on the construction, maintenance, modernization and availability of amphibious ships.

"We must prioritize our operations with the Navy and its amphibious ships, and we must provide Marines with the organic mobility to rapidly maneuver from shore to shore, ship to shore and back again," Smith said.

Related: Top Navy Leader Has Ordered 'Deep Dive' on Amphibious Ship Readiness After Delays with USS Boxer

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