US Navy Is Now Too Slow & Outdated To Match China’s Surging Ship Fleet

Plagued by delays in ship repairs and outdated design practices, the US Navy faces mounting challenges in maintaining readiness and keeping pace with China’s rapid shipbuilding advancements...

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his month, USNI News reported that the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) revealed that fewer than 40% of US Navy ships had completed repairs on time, despite the availability of shipyard space.

One reason the U.S. Navy is behind on its shipbuilding goals is that it’s been slow to embrace the kinds of digital-design tools that have revolutionized the process of building commercial ships and military aircraft.

The GAO ranked shipyard conditions second only to F-35 Lightning II air fighter sustainment costs as the most problematic readiness issue facing the US Armed Services.

The US Navy’s Shipyard Infrastructure Optimization Program (SIOP), which aims to enhance the quality of dry docks, facilities and equipment, lacks a comprehensive cost and schedule estimate, the USNI report said.

The US Navy works with private and public yards to cut maintenance delays before returning to service through better planning, identifying long-lead items needed and greater workforce size and skills. But it is still facing a crisis in repairing ships on time and on budget.

Moreover, Naval Technology reported this month that the US Navy’s ship design process is deemed too slow and less predictable due to lengthy design practices. Naval Technology says that the US Navy’s industrial base is struggling to deliver the surface fleet at a pace that meets its requirements amid an uncertain geopolitical environment.

Commercial ship buyers and builders prioritize shorter, predictable design and construction periods, resulting in timely ships that meet current user needs. The US Navy’s ship design practices contribute to a slower pace and less predictable cost, schedule and performance outcomes, the Naval Technology report said.

In addition to bureaucratic delays and outdated design processes, the US Navy is lagging in modern design techniques too. Defense One reported that the GAO mentioned that the US Navy is slow to adopt modern ship-designing tools. The GAO found that Navy shipbuilders’ use of these tools remains more limited than with commercial builders.

Defense One mentions that the GAO highlights instances where shipbuilders and maintainers, such as Chevron and Damen, use digital twinning in the commercial world. Defense One also says shipbuilders are eager to employ new technologies like augmented reality and high-fidelity 3-D design rendering.

However, the US Navy faces obstacles in obtaining vendor-furnished information (VFI) data, which is necessary for digital modeling. The continued use of 2D design information for legacy ship classes and the need for new digital tools are also challenges, the Defense One report said.

Shipbuilders want clearer demands from the US Navy and financial support for acquiring and implementing these tools.

Such stumbling blocks are hobbling the US’ defense posture against its near-peer adversary, China, whose shipbuilding capacity has surged beyond the US, with China’s shipbuilding capacity 232 times greater than that of the US.

Defense One noted in February 2024 that Admiral Samuel Paparo, Jr, head of US Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM), said that while the US is not overmatched in the shipbuilding gap, the trajectory is not ideal. He suggested that US tech, like unmanned vehicles, could offset the size of China’s fleet.

However, Reuters reported this month that the US Navy’s efforts to build a fleet of unmanned vessels are faltering due to the Pentagon’s commitment to big shipbuilding projects.

Reuters notes that Ukraine’s use of explosive-laden unmanned surface vehicles (USV) to sink Russian Black Sea Fleet warships and the Houthi’s use of such in the Red Sea against commercial vessels have caught the Pentagon’s attention, which is reportedly incorporating lessons learned from the Black Sea and Red Sea to counter China in the Pacific.

However, the Reuters report says that the Pentagon’s budget process, which prioritizes big ships and submarines built by legacy defense contractors, has been the biggest impediment to progress.

It points out that the US Navy has a budget of $172 million this year for small and medium-sized underwater sea drones. That budget will fall to US$101.8 million in 2025.

Military sea drones can range from missile-armed speed boats to mine-hunting miniature submarines and solar-powered sailboats equipped with high-definition spy cameras, underwater sensors and loudspeakers to broadcast warnings at enemy ships.

Nevertheless, Reuters notes that the Pentagon has been exploring innovative ways to cross “the valley of death” and accelerate innovation over the last three years. At a cost ranging between US$1 million and US$3 million apiece, drones offer a cheap and fast way to bolster the US Navy’s fleet, especially as several large traditional shipbuilding projects are running years behind schedule.

For instance, The Warzone reported last month that Northrop Grumman had completed the construction of its first full-scale Manta-Ray uncrewed underwater vehicle (UUV) prototype, designed to help the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) hone its requirements for a new class of multi-mission submersible drones.

The Warzone notes that DARPA created the drone as part of the Manta Ray program, which aims to showcase critical technologies for a new type of long-lasting underwater vehicle capable of carrying payloads. The drone’s design is based on an extra-large glider imitating a manta ray’s smooth and elegant movements.

The source says the Manta Ray project aims to create a self-sufficient autonomous underwater vehicle capable of performing various tasks. The vehicle could operate independently, without human intervention, and gather energy to power itself.

The demonstration vehicle features “energy-saving technologies,” allowing it to anchor on the seafloor and hibernate in a low-power state.

Northrop has also designed energy-harvesting technology, such as the Mission Unlimited Unmanned Underwater Vehicle Station, which combines Seatrec’s Thermal Energy Pod with Northrop’s invention of a self-insulating, wet-mate electrical connector, enabling submerged underwater connections.

The Warzone notes that DARPA’s testbed has a payload capacity for various missions, but the types of payloads are unclear. The Manta-Ray prototype can be quickly shipped in five standard containers for deployment worldwide.

However, The Warzone report says that whether the US Department of Defense (DOD) ultimately procures Northrop’s offering remains unclear. It says possessing various UUV tiers will be critical in any future maritime fight, especially with adversaries investing heavily in UUVs including China. ✪

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