24 March 2006

The 1 Billion dollar ship or how the 5-sided wind tunnel is sinking the Navy

Every so often I read the Navy Times. This week's edition talks about the arrival of the latest ship to the US Fleet. The USS San Antonio, LPD-17. It is the first in a series of ships to upgrade the amphibious portion of the fleet. This is a ship built from the keel up to be innovatative for a large hull ship. Things such as computer controlled cameras looking in the engine room with computer controls to open and close valves, improved racks to increase crew comfort, and gender neutral berthing/head issues. This is all fine and dandy. A number of items that were covered by the 4 page article are interesting and look like they are going to be a serious boon to crew comfort and moral. However, the only question that I want to ask is this, At what cost? The ship when ordered back in Fiscal Year budget 1996 (passed in calendar year 1995) the first unit was slated to cost about USD$ 641 million. Now I do understand that the first unit of any class of ship, plane, tank, rifle will cost more since at times basically you are building something from scratch and the people in charge of the ship building and supervision process will make hopefully, as a friend of mine who is a yard worker says, minor changes to the interior layout.
Yet this ship is going to have cost the American taxpayer (and that includes me and every other member of the American military) about a billion dollars more then that. Total cost at delivery for this ship was 1.326 Billion dollars. Yes, good reader billion with a "B". At costs like that for just 1 (single, uno, one,ein, un) ship when Congress is talking about scaling back budgets who much will the expected run of ships around 8 cost us? Figure about 10 billion dollars if the costs stay up where it was for just this ship. Now the Department of the Navy is guessing that the costs should scale down for next few years to around 846 million dollars. If you take a look at the Navy's FY07 budget (a pdf) and flip down to table A-12. You can see that for this year past and for next year the Navy has only budgeted total 10.5 to 10.6 billion dollars to buy ships with and that is expected to continue to be the trend for the next few years. So if they plan on commissioning the next 7 over the next 4-5 years, either the US Navy is going to have to scale back buying other ships, weapons, and training dollars to pay just for one ship. If that isn't an option and to be honest it really isn't, then it will have to go to Congress and ask for more cash. Will that happen and will Congress be willing to give it the money? I seriously doubt it, if congress swings back the other way in next election . So what is the Navy's options? Well to start with the ships that this one is going to replaced have been serving the US Navy for 40+ years and were rode hard and put to bed wet. So they need to be replaced and soon. How? Well that is the tough part. Considering the fact that their isn't any major shipyards in the US anymore. So to distribute this around to other yards in the States to alleviate costs won't work. To cut back the buy is an option however, that will just increase final costs for the rest of the ships that are going to be bought. So the only thing that I can really think about right now for these ships is removing a large number of the high tech gear, leave room to install it, and then as costs come down install it in stages during the first yard period. Besides I know for a fact that anything high tech that the Navy has bought doesn't seem to work right or have all the features promised when the contracts were inked. So by the time that this ship hits its first yard period it will see replacement or upgrading of a large amount of its equipment. This is just the opinion of a lowly blue-shirt on the deck plates.

This is just one ship that is part of a larger attempt by those in the Navy's portion of the 5-sided wind tunnel to replace a large number of ships in the fleet right now. They are (and have been for the better part of 15yrs now) arguing about what the next style of Aircraft carrier, no dubbed CVN-21, will look like and what it will have in it. The replacement for a number of cold war destroyer and cruisers will be replaced by the DD(X) and CG(X) projects which are hitting costs around the same for the LPD-17 class. Finally the LCS ship which no one still yet inside the 5-sided wind tunnel or at Newport, Rhode Island can say what they want it to look like let alone to do.
Some how in the period of a 40yrs the US Navy was able to progress from early steam ships during the Civil War up to the precussor of the modern battleship that was able to defeat the Spanish Fleet in both Manila and then with in a few days off the coast Santiago in Cuba. Now the US Navy wants to make the jump from basic networked and computer controlled ships to almost completely HAL controlled with in the period of a decade. Yet the technology just isn't there yet or isn't cheap enough yet.

This is just the opinion of a lowly blue-shirt on the deck plates. For those of you curious what the US DoD budget looks like broken down completely (and need some light reading :) ) check out the Office of the Comptroller's Defense budget link and read to your hearts content.

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