Why navies aren’t cheap

Navies are expensive. Ships drive through the ocean, a thoroughly corrosive environment. Wooden ships fight off rot, worms and barnacles. Steel ships are no safer, eating constant sacrificial anodes to prevent rust from breaking holes in their hulls. This caustic environment has driven innovations in marine engineering to design and build warships that can survive while still providing a lethal punch to our enemies.

Nations have been trying for years to build cheaper Navies. In some cases, crews can be cheaper by using unskilled personnel. This is common in Middle Eastern nations, where non-citizen draftees make up the bulk of Sailor roles. I once visited a US ship that had been sold to such a nation. My tour on her was heartbreaking. Rust lined the bilges, and seawater leaks were common, because the untrained seamen didn’t understand basic maintenance, and the officers didn’t know enough to force regular cleaning…or simply didn’t care.

Other nations try to use commercial vessels. As suggested by this article, commercial vessels have plenty of space for vertical missile launchers, at only a fraction of the cost. The British were able to scramble and turn commercial vessels into helicopter carriers, just in time to win the battle for the Falkland Islands. This came at great cost, because these vessels cannot protect themselves, and any kinetic strike is likely to take it out of the fight. These vessels have “glass jaws,” so brittle in war that they are unlikely to serve in anything but the rear.

The problem with a cheap Navy is that it is only for show. Did you know Brazil had an aircraft carrier until 2017? Most people don’t. The carrier suffered multiple maintenance problems due to poor upkeep. This isn’t unusual. Most nation’s navies can barely deploy in local waters, and only a few can actually traverse the globe. Being able to go anywhere is hard. It requires things like underway replenishment and enhanced survivability after a hit, something civilian vessels don’t have.

If we want a cheaper Navy, we’re better off ignoring arguments of recapitalizing old commercial vessels. Those vessels are cheap for a reason, and in a fight against peer adversaries like China and Russia, they don’t stand a chance.

Instead, we should be asking the hard questions about our acquisition process. Part of this is negligence by the Navy, which still hasn’t created a professional acquisition force. Acquisitions is a full time job, yet the Navy continues to act like any US Navy officer can simply walk in and figure it out. Part of this is Congress, where lifetime Congressmen continue to manipulate contracts so that jobs land in their districts, whether that makes sense or not. And part of the problem is the Executive Branch, which rarely fires General and Flag Officers that run disastrous projects such as the Littoral combat Ship.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, or any other government agency.