If, as one of our recent pieces on Obama and his new emphasis on people rather than technology asserts, the incoming Obama administration will prioritise people over technology, then the US Navy will end up taking second billing to the starring army role. In other words, naval technology in the US market could take a double hit: organisational deferral to the army, and functional deferral of technology to people.

It's even worse for naval shipbuilding and platform acquisition. Obama's campaign website explicitly mentions the navy, alone among the three services, in the procurement context – and not in a good way. To wit, Obama's defence blueprint (downloadable from his site's defence page) points to "…a broader failure in the navy's acquisition process. As part of its overall defence reforms, an Obama administration will prioritise fixing the naval acquisitions

This focus is part of a broader planned offensive for military contracting reform that ought to leave no part of the Pentagon untouched.

Nevertheless, the navy has arguably earned the dubious right to be first through the wringer, as its major new ship designs (such as the amphibious landing ship) have suffered serious cost and schedule over-runs.

Moreover, Obama's 'transitioning to meet 21st-century threats' theme implies that the odd man out is the navy – as currently configured. With its emphasis on unconventional warfare and implied focus on 'soft power', the defence paper implicitly deprioritises the navy's core sea control mission. For both international and domestic political reasons, the paper makes the obligatory announcement that "command of the seas will be more important than ever,"
but it makes no mention whatsoever of combatants other than the littoral combat ship (LCS).

The LCS: Obama's kind of ship (almost)

Indeed, Obama's stated position on the LCS – good idea, bad execution – symbolises his general views on naval procurement. The LCS concept is an excellent response to the emerging unconventional conflict threat because it is 'SAM': small, agile and modular.

In principle, smaller size permits the construction of more units and enables each unit to be more tactically agile, which means not only faster craft, but also craft that are better able to engage in littoral operations due to features such as shallow draught. The modularity enables the fleet to adapt to different missions with minimal substitution or downtime.

“Obama’s stated position on the LCS – good idea, bad execution – symbolises his general views on naval procurement.”

Under the philosophy implicitly endorsed by Obama, quantity and agility are the most useful characteristics in a world featuring multiple simmering conflicts that can quickly and concurrently ignite into hotspots.

Equally important, the threats and opportunities presented by these conflicts will vary significantly from case to case, which in turn puts a premium on the flexibility that modular construction provides.

However, the LCS development fiasco is precisely the type of acquisitions failure that Obama wants to fix, and for good reason.

Uncontrolled cost increases create a dilemma: build more and bust the budget, or build fewer and sacrifice the quantity advantage necessary to combat the anticipated 21st-century threat.

In the current economic climate of sharp recession and ballooning budget deficits, busting the budget for military technology, especially 'last war' technology, would be unwise for any administration, and will be especially unadvisable for the Obama administration.

Building fewer units, which is politically the path of least resistance, is economically the worst of both worlds for the military: it creates large logistics tails relative to front-line contribution, precludes learning curve and scale economies, and fails to amortiae R&D.

Clearly, the most efficient acquisition process requires keeping development costs low and production runs high. In terms of new shipbuilding, this model dovetails nicely with Obama's proposed shift from larger (and fewer) to smaller (and more numerous) vessels. Also implicit in this model is the second major dimension of naval force restructuring announced in Obama's defence blueprint: whenever possible, modernising existing ships instead of constructing new ones.

If it ain't broke, fix it

Modernising, of course, is inherently cheaper than replacing. However, the devil is in the details – namely, what does 'whenever possible' mean? In principle, rebuild / replace decisions rest on judgments regarding capability and cost.

“The most efficient acquisition process requires keeping development costs low and production runs high.”

Effectiveness in adversarial contexts depends significantly on the opponent's capabilities but Obama's defence policy implies that upgrades to major navy combatants such as Burke Class destroyers and Ticonderoga Class cruisers should be sufficient to meet foreseeable high-end naval threats. Skeptics can plausibly argue that improvements in missile technology, as well as foreign submarine and aviation quality, will take technological leverage away from the US Navy, but at least initially, Obama's team is unlikely to believe this, whether or not it is true. Consequently, major surface combatant programmes such as the Zumwalt Class destroyer and the CG(X) are vulnerable to cancellation, particularly given the former's own sorry development story.

The other trigger for replacement is declining cost effectiveness, or outright obsolescence, of existing platforms. The critical metric here is maintenance cost broadly defined, which suggests that scale economies could be as important as absolute age.

In this respect, replacing the 48-year old carrier Enterprise with the Gerald R Ford (CVN-67) in 2015 is appropriate. Commissioned in 1961, the Enterprise is not only near the half-century benchmark for ship life, but also is the only non-Nimitz Class carrier in the fleet.

By the same token, follow-ons to replace the earlier Nimitz Class carriers are open to deferral, even though the Ford technically represents a new carrier class. Nimitz, the lead ship of its class, was commissioned in 1971, but still operates effectively, making additional Ford Class carriers primary targets if the Obama administration wants (or needs) to impose big-ticket, big-savings cutbacks.

The fates of other major ship types, particularly submarines and amphibious ships, are more ambiguous. At a minimum, though, Obama's strategic priorities imply a continuing role for the former and an expanded role for the latter.