Way back when – in April – I had a bit of a trend going of discussing things related to why the Navy is what it is, where things stack up in the world, and all the rest. But then a bunch of things popped up, like a trip to Paris, family being here in-country, an actual war (you know, ’cause they just sorta happen sometimes) – um, so I lost track.
Let’s get back on it.
Answer: Because ships take a long time to build!
Let’s examine the USS Ramage, a ship I’ll pick simply because my family has recently become associated with it. Ramage is a guided missile destroyer (a DDG), eleventh in the class and thus fairly representative of a mature program and the most common ship class in today’s U.S. Navy. The Navy placed the order to the shipbuilder in February 1990. Almost three years later, the materials were finally ready, and Ramage was laid down at Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula, Mississippi, on January 4, 1993. The hull was put afloat a year after that, February 1, 1994, and Ramage’s commissioning was a further eighteen months later, July 22, 1995. And it didn’t actually get anywhere operationally useful until its first deployment, which only commenced on November 25, 1996 (yes, right before Thanksgiving – “you’re welcome,” said the Navy).
So, the length of time between placing the order and actually influencing national security took nearly seven years. That is longer than U.S. involvement in World War I and World War II. Combined. And remember, this isn’t a giant aircraft carrier or a first-of-a-kind project – this is literally the most common, frequently-built thing we’ve got.
On the positive side of the ledger, a typical DDG should last us about thirty years. Except – wait a minute – it’s 2016, and this ship is already twenty years old! Good thing the DDG program continues, and more are being built. But not many more.
The cruel truth is the surface fleet is disproportionately the product of the Eighties and Nineties. Seawater is a nasty environment to live in; ships get old and simply can’t go on indefinitely. Every single frigate is now gone. Their supposed replacement, the Littoral Combat Ship, is, er, not on schedule, and an overstretched fleet of cruisers and destroyers fills the gap, wearing themselves down and shortening their own service lives in the process. Their eventual replacements, to my knowledge, don’t even exist on paper.
Today’s conditions are the result of decisions made ten and even twenty years ago. So what will the Navy of 2030 look like? That is being decided today.