CAVASSHIPS Podcast [Apr 22, ’22] Episode 45…It’s a Head Scratcher for Sure


Welcome to the CavasShips Podcast with Christopher P. Cavas and Chris Servello…a weekly podcast looking at naval and maritime events and issues of the day – in the US, across the seas and around the world. This Week…the US Navy’s latest 30-year shipbuilding plan and newly-released Fiscal 2023 budget documents led to a flurry of comments and media stories this week – hardly any of a complimentary nature. We’ll dive into some of the details and try to discern the overall impact with defense analyst Byron Callan of the independent Washington research firm Capital Alpha Partners.

In this Week’s Squawk Chris Cavas comments on the Navy’s 30-year Shipbuilding Plan.

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This Week’s Naval Round Up:

China and the government of the Solomon Islands announced on April 20 the signing of a defense agreement that many fear will allow China to build a naval base in the Southwest Pacific. The US, Britain and in particular Australia immediately voiced concerns about possible Chinese naval expansion into the region, as the agreement gives China the right to establish a permanent military presence in the islands. China has been waging a sustained campaign in the island country to influence the government, at times provoking bitter riots in the capital of Honiara on the main island of Guadalcanal. Many in Australia see the potential for China to directly threaten Australia’s major population centers. The Solomons were the scene of bitter fighting during World War II between Japan and allied US and Australian forces. 

The Chinese Navy on April 21 commissioned two new warships – the assault ship GUANGXI and the large destroyer ANSHAN. The GUANGXI is the second of three large Type 075 assault ships, similar to the US Navy’s largest amphibious ships, while the ANSHAN is the sixth Type 055, or Renhai, class ship. Earlier in the week the first Type 055, NANSHAN, reportedly launched a YF-21 hypersonic anti-ship ballistic missile, a version of the land-based DF-21 ballistic missile. The YF-21 is also carried by Chinese H-6N medium bombers.

In war news, Russian warships, after the sinking of the cruiser MOSKVA on April 15, seem to have largely withdrawn from their previous positions off Ukraine’s western Black Sea coast, although bombardment with Kalibr missiles continues. On April 22 the world’s oldest active naval ship, the submarine tender/rescue ship KOMMUNA, was reported to be over the wreck of the MOSKVA. The KOMMUNA – which entered service in 1915 under the last Tsar of Russia, is likely carrying a minisub to examine the wreck.

Four Atlantic Fleet destroyers who surge-deployed to the European Theater earlier this year returned this week to the US East Coast. The destroyers MITSCHER, THE SULLIVANS, DONALD COOK and FORREST SHERMAN deployed in January and February in response to  Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The four ships returned to their home ports of Norfolk and Mayport between April 13 and 18.

Cavas Squawk:

The controversies over the US Navy’s recently released fiscal 2023 budget and 30-year shipbuilding plan aren’t so much about what the service is buying, although a whole lot of critics think they should be buying more. Much more, actually. But there’s almost an equal amount of squawking about what’s being discarded.

Don’t get me wrong – in anything as bloated as the Pentagon’s proposed $773 billion dollar budget there are going to be dozens – hundreds – maybe even more – items that can be severely reduced or cancelled. Critics seized on the ship numbers – 24 ships to be decommissioned in 2023, 53 more ships over the next four years. Some of those cuts are clearly justified – ships, like anything else, get old and at some point they’re worn out and not worth fixing again.

But the sheer scope of those cuts prompts a keen sense of wonder at what the Navy and the Pentagon leadership is doing, especially in the face of what’s going on in eastern Europe and the continued threatening rise of Chinese naval power and expansion. Cutting today’s 298-ship fleet down to 280 ships in 2027 seems a distinct path in the wrong direction. Even the most optimistic version of the Navy’s plan doesn’t have the fleet back to today’s ship levels until 2032. Folks, that’s TEN YEARS AWAY. That is not a realistic plan, regardless of whatever vaunted capabilities that fleet of the 2030s and 2040s will have. I’m also pretty concerned about the fleet of 2022 and the rest of this decade.

Looking across the cuts, there emerges a haphazard picture of cut-as-cut-can – many of the cuts don’t seem to add up to a coherent picture. Smaller-scale programs like the RQ-21 Blackjack Unmanned Aerial System – touted only a couple of years ago as a key capability for the Marines – are now called “no longer operationally relevant.” The Snakehead Large Displacement Underwater Unmanned Vehicle, until now a key element in the Navy’s development of increased UUV capabilities, is suddenly dead.

Even more perplexing, the Navy’s five Expeditionary Electronic Attack Squadrons are to be disestablished with no replacement. This is astonishing – those squadrons of EA-18G Growler aircraft constitute the US military’s primary joint electronic attack capability, a key element in any campaign’s suppression of enemy air defenses. One of those squadrons deployed in late March to Germany in response to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine – one of the most significant US military moves this year in Europe. To divest of this capability makes little sense, especially if it’s primarily a cost-cutting move.

Navy and Pentagon leaders are preparing their testimony as they get ready for a series of Congressional hearings on the proposed budget. They will have a lot of explaining to do. We’ll be listening and watching closely.

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