A Tale of Two Services

Surprisingly, this takes a while to build

There’s a lot of talk out there about boosts to defense budgets here, cuts to others there, and Armed Services of increased sizes everywhere. But at this point, it must be made clear that it really is just talk. No president ever gets the budget they want – only Congress can spend money. No reason to get nervous or, alternatively, cocky.

But be that as it may, let’s take such intentions as a given and see how they play out in the real world.

The Army is ready to go! They have taken their marching orders and are ready to increase end strength by 28,000 troops this year. It doesn’t exactly turn on a dime but, when you consider the scale of it – it nudges the total Active, Reserve and Guard strength to just over one million people – that’s pretty fast. The history of the Army is one of rapid swings up and down.

Then there’s the Navy. Growth cannot move fast. Speed is not a thing. A ship is an enormous capital investment. The Navy might be able to get some new aircraft in short order, or maybe some other smaller equipment, but a new ship or submarine – the backbone of the force – will take years. The industrial base for rapid expansion does not exist. You can order new ships, but where will you build them? Who will do the labor? Pretty much everyone still capable of doing the work already is. So there’s a bit more legwork to do before making this a reality. And the will to do so must remain intact for years on end.

Simply maintaining a navy, let alone expanding one, requires enormous sustained political support across the executive and legislative branches, and the people they represent. Sea power maven Bryan McGrath articulates the need for a naval narrative here. We would do well to listen.

In short, maritime trade and freedom of the seas is the very basis for global prosperity. Threats to that flow must be deterred (preferably) or eliminated (occasionally). But the forces to do so cannot simply be called into existence – if you need them, you’d better already have them. And if you don’t, someone else will fill the vacuum… probably someone unattractive.

So what will happen now? Despite the big numbers being thrown around not a whole lot, even if they become law. Readiness will be improved; the current force could be brought into slightly better shape. But actual growth? Not during this presidential term.


Deterrence is usually packaged in steel boxes

Remember the good old days when Europe was at peace and Russia was a bosom buddy? Neither do I, but back in 2013 we certainly were operating that way. Here’s a blast from the recent past:

The U.S. Army’s 69-year history of basing main battle tanks on German soil quietly ended last month when 22 Abrams tanks, a main feature of armored combat units throughout the Cold War, embarked for the U.S.

Turns out, maybe that was not well thought out. But don’t worry, they’re on it:

Determined to deter the rising Russian threat, the US Army is slashing the time it takes for a brigade to get ready for battle once it’s arrived in Europe, from over 40 days to under 10.

I won’t comment on that any further; it’s proposed here as something for you to think about.

But as long as we’re talking about tanks, enjoy some long-lost verse about mechanized warfare from the creator of Winnie the Pooh.

— End transmission —

Context and Counting

“Count THIS!” said Teddy Roosevelt

This blog has been illuminating pixels for more than a year now, but has never covered a simple topic that pops up in the news with some regularity – historic fleet counts. The reason, most likely, is that it is annoying. Such historic comparisons are both meaningless and fraught with symbolism; educational and mind-numbing. And in the hands of the uninformed or misinformed, they only make you dumber than when you started.

So let’s get started!

The most recent instance of journalists attempting to count ships was last week when POTUS (not SMOD, sadly) visited the shipyard in Newport News to announce his defense spending plan. Speaking to a naval crowd, he repeated a common statement that the Navy is the smallest it’s been since 1916, as measured by the number of hulls displacing water.

This is true, if one sticks strictly to raw numbers. The New York Times, of course, was quick to point out that today’s ships are rather more capable than a century ago.

The Navy swelled from 245 ships in 1916 to a peak of over 6,000 during World War II, downsizing between conflicts and bulking up during the Korean and Vietnam Wars. From the 1970s, the Navy gradually began to shrink to a total battle force of 275 ships as of September 2016.

But that fleet includes 10 aircraft carriers, 22 cruisers, 63 destroyers, 11 amphibious assault ships and 68 submarines, 14 of which are armed with nuclear warheads.

I hate to call the NYT staff a bunch of simpletons (especially as a journalism major myself), but, well… context, people. Context. Of course capabilities have changed over the years.

But what was the mission of the fleets in those respective eras?

What ships were at the tip of the spear and which had other roles?

And do those ships have any technological advantage over their adversaries?

In order to get a cleaner comparison, let us first acknowledge that the nature of most of the fleet has changed. The monitors and steel gunboats of 1916 have no equivalents today, for example, and today’s aircraft carriers had no Edwardian ancestors. Fortunately, we still have major surface combatants – basically, your battleships and cruisers of 1916 and cruisers and destroyers of 2017. These are the backbone of the fleet, whose mission of sea control has remained more or less constant since the days of sail.

So what are the numbers?

In December of 1916, the U.S. Navy had on its books 36 battleships and 30 cruisers – a total of 66 major surface combatants. Worth noting: there were also 25 “auxiliaries,” which are basically the ships that carry fuel and supplies for the combatants (the guys celebrated here). Like sea control, this mission is also relatively constant over time.

So, how’s the score today? One hundred years later, in September of 2016, the U.S. Navy operated 22 cruisers and 63 destroyers, totaling 85 major surface combatants. Additionally, there were precisely 29 vessels providing fleet logistics.

What we see in this view is that over the century, the combatant force increased by just under a third (from 66 to 85) while the logistics force increased about 15 percent.

Now let’s break it down further – assume it takes four ships on the books to deploy one. Essentially, you have one ship training to deploy, one on deployment, one recently returned, and one going through overhaul.

Then take that number and divide it in two, since geography forces the U.S. to have a two-ocean navy.

Don’t worry, I did it for you here (decimals are rounded down to whole numbers).

Year Surface Combatants Deployed Deployed from Each Coast
1916 66 16 8
2016 85 21 10


What we see is that the American ability to send a floating piece of steel to a given crisis somewhere on Planet Earth is not that much different than a century ago. Granted, the 2016 number is slightly higher, but when one accounts for squadron operations (ships rarely sail independently) this really means we can only have a sea combat-capable presence in three or maybe four separate regions around the world. Given the intended 60/40 Pacific/Atlantic split, our abilities in the Pacific might be a little better, but in the Atlantic it’s actually worse.

Yes, we have carriers too, but only one is typically deployed per coast at a time (we recently had a grand total of zero), so they don’t change the end result that much.

If we thought that degree of presence was enough in 1916, when we still played second- or third-fiddle to the British – well, maybe with the increased responsibilities of the 21st Century, ratcheting it up might be a tad helpful.

Technology affects what a ship can do when it arrives somewhere, but as for being present there at all, a century of technical innovations can’t change basic facts of geography, fuel consumption curves, or the strategic value of the simple presence of a combat force. The toys are just details – but they are dazzling, and too often cause us (and naive reporters) to lose sight of why they exist.

And, about the toys – the enemy has those, too.

So, probably best not to rely on that.

Musing on Drill Weekend

It’s drill weekend and I’m camped out in Norfolk for some quality time with other Reservists. These weekends are always a fine opportunity to break away from the “real world”, if only for 48 hours or so.

But the real world always reaches in and grabs my thoughts, no matter my intentions. So, here are a few things that have happened in recent weeks and some connections between them.


About everything, really

First, Senators McCain and Reed wrote a letter to the Chief of Naval Operations expressing their, uh, concern about the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program. Their concern is not unjustified – you can check in with CDR Salamander about the current status of the seven ships in commission, one of which is actually available for tasking. The Navy knows stuff isn’t going well. Just a few days prior to the Senate letter, the admiral in charge of surface ships released a directive completely revamping the system for manning and employing these ships, in an effort to salvage some kind of operational value from them.

In essence, these small ships are not doing very well at basic tasks like completing transits under their own power, much less accomplishing the missions they are designed for. That mission is to control the seas near shore; its shallow(ish) draft means it can go places and do things a destroyer or cruiser can’t. That implies that a LCS will generally remain in a certain region for a long period instead of crossing oceans. Which is good, because it’s a small ship with fuel-hungry gas turbine engines, and can’t carry enough fuel to stay out for terribly long.

Now let’s shift gears.

Recently-inaugurated Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has announced that upcoming joint U.S.-Philippine military exercises will be the last of their kind, as he tries to strengthen ties with China and Russia.

Well, how ‘bout that?

The Philippines are sort of important in U.S. planning for contingencies in the Western Pacific. What happens if they back out of previous agreements? Where are our bases in that region? Where does the logistics train go to camp? Who do they invite in our place?

And what good is the short-ranged LCS in that region if it can’t use bases in the Philippines or pull supplies from there?

Are we building a surface fleet that can’t even get to, much less operate in, the new strategic environment taking shape? After all, it’s a long way from Singapore to Manila…

Let’s add a third thing to the mix.

Neither presidential candidate cares. One of them knows nothing, understands nothing, and cares nothing for the topic, except to make braggadocio-laden statements backed with little but smug vapors. The other has at least a little knowledge of international relations but no particular will to arrest American loss of prestige, and certainly no instinct for reasonable policy if past performance is taken at face value.

So, we have a strategic environment that is rapidly changing; a force that, even on its best of days, is reaching a point where it simply doesn’t match that environment; and top leadership that Will. Not. Adjust. Course.

And remember, this is not a boutique issue – sea power and freedom of the seas IS THE BASIS OF THE ENTIRE WORLD ECONOMY. Shortchange it at your peril.

That is why the Salty Wog heartily endorses the only candidate with a foreign policy that is understandable, achievable and sustainable: SMOD 2016.


Barely Satire

The world according to the Joint Staff

The world according to the Joint Staff

Contrary to what you may have thought, the Navy hasn’t fought a war since World War II.

But don’t get too smug, all you soldiers out there: neither has the Army. Nor the Marine Corps. And the Air Force has never fought one at all.

It’s been subject to various revisions since 1947, but the common thread is that “unified” commanders, generally forward-deployed, are the ones who fight the good fight on the front lines. Today this takes the shape of the regional “combatant commanders” spread around the globe (plus some functional ones, as opposed to regional, like SOCOM). The services – that is, the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force – simply provide forces to the commanders, who use them to meet national tasking. The commander is personally a member of just one service, but he or she is in charge of all the U.S. military forces within the Area of Responsibility (AOR).

The services operate under the authority of Title 10 of the U.S. Code, which assigns them the duty of manning, training and equipping their respective forces. Title 10 also authorizes the President to assign the unified commanders who operate those forces. The end result is a perverse bit of nomenclature in which the Chief of Naval Operations is, in fact, in charge of absolutely zero naval operations.

If this sounds complicated, it really isn’t. As usual, it can be interpreted through the satire of the indispensable Duffel Blog:

Hello, Combatant Commander! How are you this morning?

Wonderful. Wonderful.

I’m calling today to ask you if you’re one hundred percent satisfied with your current force provider. Are they treating you right? Are you getting the properly equipped, trained and sustained troops you need for the various conflicts in your Area Of Responsibility?

Really, where would we be without Duffel Blog? Like all the best satire, it illuminates while inducing a giggle. Even I don’t know all the acronyms they use in this discussion of GFM (Global Force Management) but who cares? It still gets to the question every combatant commander should be asking – are the services sending me the right forces to accomplish the missions that I am tasked with?

So imagine the services as Q to the COCOM’s James Bond. No, too glamourous. Or the pit crew to the COCOM’s Jimmie Johnson. Eh, maybe not exactly, but you get the point. The services provide a force – and the Presidentially-appointed commanders use it.

And now you know.


Hope (?)

Death with a smile

Death with a smile

Reuters breathlessly reports from Farnborough that the F-35 had a dazzling debut at the annual UK air show, and that it is rapidly approaching readiness for real-world operations.

It reads like a Lockheed Martin press release. Nevertheless, let us hope this story is true. It’s bought with your money, after all. The airplane intended to be low-cost that will run $100 million a copy had better work as advertised, and for a good, long time.

However, this paragraph made me pause:

But U.S. officials argue the plane’s sophisticated fusion technology will let it spot enemy jets from such a distance that it never get into an actual dogfight, and that its cost will drop to around $85 million by 2019, stepping up competition with rivals such as Boeing Co F/A-18 and Eurofighter.

The second clause might actually happen – with steady production, costs will almost certainly drop. But the first… oh my, the first.

People forget history.

The aircraft: the F-4 Phantom II. The time: the 1950s.

Supersonic flight and missiles were revolutionizing everything – no dogfights would ever happen again. EVER. All the smart people said so. So the F-4, among other interceptors of the time, was designed without a gun.

But the Vietnam War popped up a couple years after the F-4 hit the fleet. That bubble got burst real quick.

The theory was supersonic fighters would be able to loose a missile at its target and be miles away before the unfortunate opponent even knew a fight was on. However, the tech hadn’t caught up. Missiles of the time weren’t quite as precise as Robert McNamara thought. And pilots would often slow down after the first unsuccessful pass in an attempt to turn around, get behind the target and try again.

Which put them in an oft-quoted situation – too bad there was no gun to remedy it. An externally-mounted one solved the immediate problem, but arguably the issue should have never occurred in the first place.

So now comes the F-35 – all three versions of it. It is a computer around which wings and an engine are mounted, with a bit of space for some weapons and a pilot. The “fusion” Reuters speaks of is (unfortunately) not the chimerical power source, but data from a plethora of sources all using the jet as a node for synthesis and analysis. This, combined with stealth, means it’s supposed to see and kill any aerial enemy before it can be seen and targeted itself.

Where to begin?

This is where we separate the men from the boys, and the general assignment reporter dispatched to an air show versus somebody who’s actually given a thought to the subject.

For argument’s sake let’s assume the F-35 fulfills every requirement (I sure hope it does). It remains the truth that all its immense technical capabilities will be controlled by humans, as war is a human endeavor. How we fight is constrained by any number of human factors, some intentional, some not. Rules of engagement will come into play – for example, if visual identification of a target is required before firing on it, then stealth and range are useless. If satellites are taken down (which will happen in the next Big One), then the datalinks are useless. And if the F-35 really does replace the A-10 in the ground attack role, as the US Air Force has long planned, then it’ll be down low where its radar won’t be able to see far and its noise will announce its presence to anyone with ears.

There might be mitigating measures for all these, to some degree or another. But the prospect of never getting into a short-range scrum is ludicrous. Just because something is technically possible doesn’t mean it’ll happen. And in this case, history shows it is virtually certain not to pan out the way the authorities expect. It is insulting that this stuff is still being peddled by the Joint Strike Fighter project office, uninformed news reporters buy it, and everyone else is expected to believe it.

As is common around here, I hope I’m wrong about everything.

PS – here is a recent background piece if you’re not up to speed on the F-35 project. You know, like a normal person.


The End is Coming…

… to the legacy military retirement system, that is.

He's not wrong

He’s not wrong

You thought I was going to say something else, didn’t you? Ha!

No, seriously, there’s a major ongoing overhaul to the military retirement system. It will change a lot of incentives and require members to pay more attention to their own finances; and, on balance, I believe this is a benefit for Reservists, in particular.

Historically retirement has been the 20-year deal: serve honorably for twenty years, and earn a pension, determined by paygrade and years of service. The Reserve system parallels the Active Duty retirement, though with the additional variable of Reserve Retirement Points thrown in, but it is basically similar.

What the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act has done is reduce (not eliminate) the defined-benefit pension, and add a matching contribution to the already-established Thrift Savings Program (TSP) in which all federal employees, including military, may enroll. Since most people don’t retire from the military, the matching contributions would mean that the vast majority can finish their service with a little something for their retirement beyond their own personal savings.

It’s not perfect – and, in fact, it’s not even finished, as the Pentagon’s FY17 budget request would delay matching contributions until the fifth year of service, meaning many servicemembers would see no benefit – but it’s a step in the right direction. The full defined-benefit pension is not affordable and a “blended” system better accounts for today’s more mobile workforce.

It’s also a boon to Reservists.

At the moment, as a mobilized Reservist, I am essentially on loan back to the Active Component of the Navy. The way Reserve retirements are set up, a pension normally begins at age 60. However, time spent mobilized (in 90-day increments) can move up that first pension check, 90 days at a time. For example, a six-month mobilization would move up your pension by six months (A seven-month mob would move it by only six months, though… so don’t do seven. Stick with numbers divisible by three, if you can.).

However, there are multiple kinds of Active Duty orders in the Reserve – you might get a job considered Active Duty for Training (ADT) or Active Duty for Special Work (ADSW). Those orders retain you in the Reserve Component and thus do not move up the start date of your pension. ADT and ADSW orders earn points for you, and additional points can help increase your pension – until you max out at 130 for the year. Beyond that, you’re doing nothing to help yourself in this regard.

But matching contributions would change that. If you’re a Reservist on long-term ADT/ADSW orders (and there are many of them), then you can now earn a matching contribution to your TSP account with every paycheck, and continue accruing benefits even after your annual points are maxed out. That’s a major change for the better!

It’s all academic to me – I’m too senior to “opt in” to the new system, and, on account of that decade-plus already served, I wouldn’t do it even if I had the option. At this point, there’s no way I can make up all those years of missed matching contributions compared to what I’ll earn with the legacy Reserve retirement. So it’s the old system for me.

But for all you youngins out there, it’s definitely something to consider. Unlike for Active Duty, where costs and benefits are more ambiguous at this stage, for Reservists it is a clear win.

Keep in mind, this won’t really be implemented for a couple more years, so all of our opinions might change 180 degrees between now and then. Change is going to happen anyway – finances compel it. But for now, at least, the good appears to outweigh the bad.

Update: They finally released some information geared toward the Reserve Component.


Ripple Effects

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.

It's time-consuming

It’s time-consuming

Let’s get back on it.

Question: Why are people so obsessive about shipbuilding plans?

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.


Reserve Judgement

Ted Nugent sets the tone

Ted Nugent sets the tone

The Salty Wog includes a page for Navy Reserve stuff and I conceived of it as a place for Reserve discussions – and yet haven’t done a single one yet. Instead I’ve been off doing movie reviews and long-winded explanations of The Way Things Are. Which will continue, to be sure. But the Reserve page deserves some content, and I’ll start with a bit of what the Navy Reserve is.

As of this writing, the active-duty Navy is home to 328,828 personnel (the latest numbers may be found here). The Navy Reserve, writ large, is about a third that size, at 107,440 individuals. Those 100,000+ trained Sailors provide a strategic manpower reserve to augment the rest of the Navy in a time of need. So if you add it all up, there’s something like 435,000 people in varying stages of affiliation with the Navy.

But there is, as always, more to it than that. The Navy Reserve gets sliced and diced a lot of ways. About half of those affiliated are in the Individual Ready Reserve (IRR), which means their name appears on a list somewhere but they’re not obligated to do anything unless there’s an emergency call-up. Most folks who serve their minimum active duty obligation end up in this situation. We’re generally obligated to eight years of service total, with the first five or so on active duty, but after that our names remain on the list until all eight years are up, even if we never put on a uniform for the latter chunk of time.

The rest – currently numbering about 57,000 – are in the Full-Time Support (FTS) and Selected Reserve (SELRES) communities. There are around 10,000 FTS and 47,000 SELRES, give or take. FTS is an active duty portion of the Navy Reserve in which members have tours both with the regular Navy and in direct support of Reserve operations and administration. SELRES is made up of the Weekend Warriors you hear so much about. Broadly speaking, most SELRES members belong to units that directly support something in the Navy’s active component or bureaucracy. My Reserve unit helps plan and execute pre-deployment training for East Coast ships, for example. Others do Pentagon admin, provide port operations expertise, or maintain and operate small riverine boats – and dozens of other missions. SELRES members get paid to do these things part time; one weekend a month, two weeks a year.

But paying people to train isn’t necessarily beneficial if they don’t apply that training – so we have mobilizations. That’s where I’m at. As of this month, nearly 3,000 Navy Reservists are mobilized to various active duty gigs, and I’m one of them. Some folks are mobilized to places like Colorado Springs or Tampa, but I am not one of those. A significant portion end up in the Middle East, largely Bahrain. I am attached to a staff that is in charge of the daily operations of some of the U.S. Navy ships in the area, so mostly I stay up to date on what’s going on and inform the right people. A lot of the security folks (Masters-at-Arms) are Reservists, and discussions of Reserve affairs can often be heard on and off base.

Several friends and I have been mobilized after only two or three years in the SELRES; on the other hand, I’ve known senior officers who never mobilized in more than a decade of Reserve service. Life is like a box of chocolates, etc.

There is more, of course, with the obvious questions about what motivates people to join. But this post is already long-ish, and with the last one being quite the marathon, it is probably time to cut it short. But now at least you know what the Navy Reserve is. That alone sets you apart from most people.


The Nuclear Option


An all-nuclear group photo from 1964.

The post about time, distance, and fuel consumption included an offhand comment about nuclear plants being able to sustain high speed. Questions were raised. I always had the intention of coming back to it, so let’s dig into it now.

In a nutshell, naval nuclear power relies on using the heat generated by radioactive decay to heat water and make steam. Instead of using coal to drive a steam engine, we use uranium. Once you get away from the reactor itself, it’s the same old steam that’s been in use for 200-plus years. But unlike coal, which is depleted as it is burned, the fuel rods stay hot and relatively intact for decades. A ship with a fifty-year service life will probably only be refueled once.

Aside from the ability to bypass the gas station, this steady power source also offers enormous amounts of energy on demand. Depending on the plant configuration and hull characteristics, it really can maintain a sprint across an ocean.

The navies of the United States and a few other countries – notably, Russia, China, France and the United Kingdom – have predominantly applied nuclear power toward submarines and aircraft carriers. The nuclear advantage is most pronounced in submarines. They never have to surface to recharge batteries with air-breathing diesels and, since drinking water and oxygen can be made from seawater, the only limit on their endurance is food. Nuclear power also enhances aircraft carriers by eliminating the vast amounts of fuel storage and ventilation that would serve a conventional plant, making that space available for aviation fuel and other supplies. Sustained high speed capabilities also help carriers when launching and recovering aircraft, since they have to make their own wind over the flight deck so their aircraft can generate extra lift.

Other smaller surface ships have been nuclear powered – Russia even maintains some nuclear icebreakers. But cruel economics have ended their careers in the United States. The construction costs of nuclear ships are higher than their conventional brethren, and end-of-life disposal costs are commensurately increased as well. In between, their fuel costs are obviously much, much lower than an oil-consuming ship, but the plants have to be overseen by nuclear-trained personnel.

If you want to enter a career field that pretty much guarantees you lifetime employment, be a nuclear engineer. They tend to get poached by the private sector, so the Navy has to spend a lot of bonus money to retain these guys, whose training wasn’t cheap to begin with. I’m sure there are other external factors that add to the cost of nuclear power, but manpower is definitely a dominant one. Expanding the nuclear manpower model to the entire fleet would require drastic paradigm-shifting reforms to be affordable; otherwise the cost would be prohibitive.

I did a bit of cursory research and found a couple tidbits that flesh out the bottom line of why nuclear has not retained its foothold in the surface fleet. First, in this Heritage Foundation report from 2007, they estimate that oil prices above $74/barrel make nuclear power competitive (they say it’s a Navy estimate but there’s no sourcing). Then, go to page 23 of this 2011 Congressional Budget Office analysis of nuclear power’s cost-effectiveness for surface ships. The history of oil prices since the early 1990s – when the last nuclear surface combatants were decommissioned – shows that prices high enough to justify nuclear ships are actually pretty rare, only about 2006 to 2008 and 2010 to 2015 (including recent history after the report was published). With OPEC keeping the spigots on, Iranian oil about to hit the market, and the American “fracklog” waiting to take advantage of any price jumps, cheap oil will be a reality for a while. Some commercial shippers are finding fuel costs to be so low that it is more economic to take extra-long trips around Africa instead of paying Suez Canal tolls, which might mean an extra ten days at sea by our calculations the other day. No need for nukes in this situation.

So, at the end of the day, nuclear plants only appear on the vessels where they offer a clear qualitative advantage – submarines and aircraft carriers.

In that case, you ask, how do we sustain a fuel-hungry non-nuclear force at sea? There’s a clue in the photo up top… stand by for more.