The USS Nimitz (CVN 68) in dry dock at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard/ Photo: Puget Sound Shipyard / Public Domain / Thiep Van Nguyen II

The US Navy has embarked on an ambitious new shipbuilding program to match China’s fast-expanding fleet in the Pacific. But US military shipbuilders will need to overcome capacity constraints, obsolete technology and increasingly outdated operational concepts to stay competitively afloat.

This month, The New York Times reported that the US Navy’s US$32 billion shipbuilding budget, its largest ever, has bankrolled the hiring of thousands of workers to assemble guided missile destroyers and amphibious transport ships at the Huntington Ingalls military shipyard on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi.

But unnamed Pentagon sources in the report expressed concerns in the report that the stream of new warships will wed the US to outdated strategies while saddling the US Navy with a bloated fleet it might not be able to maintain in the decades ahead.

Analysts and sources in the report argue that political and economic forces have produced jobs-driven procurement policies that yield powerful but cumbersome warships that may or may not be viable for modern warfare, particularly vis-a-vis China in the Pacific.

The New York Times report notes Congress has also balked at efforts to retire older ships that critics say provide only marginal warfighting capacity, potentially leaving the service at risk of being unable to afford essential maintenance and staffing costs in the future.

The same report also says that the US Navy has failed over the years to give sufficient attention and funding to innovation, which has resulted in significant barriers to transforming its antiquated procurement system and ability to radically revamp the way it organizes its fleet.

The New York Times says that the debate in US naval circles remains focused on protecting and expanding traditional platforms such as guided missile destroyers, amphibious assault ships and aircraft carriers.

The report mentions that such ships are increasingly vulnerable to attack, especially in a potential conflict with China over Taiwan. The New York Times cites RAND Corporation analysts suggesting that the US has two undesirable options in such a conflict: approaching China, where many ships will be hit by Chinese missiles and damaged, or staying hundreds or thousands of kilometers away, making it harder for Navy aircraft or missiles to reach targets.

Sitting duck? The US Navy’s forward-deployed aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) transits the San Bernardino Strait, crossing from the Philippine Sea into the South China Sea in a file photo from 2020. Photo: US Navy / Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jason Tarleton

The New York Times reports that US Admiral Lorin Selby has advocated for the Pentagon to buy unmanned devices for the US Navy worldwide but has faced internal roadblocks. Those roadblocks, the report says, include the fact that the US Navy does not have a position for a high-ranking officer to operate a hybrid fleet wherein a new generation of unmanned vehicles would operate in conjunction with traditional warships.

Although the New York Times has mentioned that the US Navy is experimenting with unmanned ships in Bahrain and Latin America, it has yet to adopt detailed operational strategies or allocate sufficiently large budgets to buy or produce unmanned platforms.

Whether the US can match China on a per-ship basis is unclear. Asia Times reported in February 2023 that US Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro has stated that the US cannot match China’s naval shipbuilding capacity.

Del Toro cited China’s larger fleet and global deployment as reasons for upgrading the US fleet. China has 13 naval shipyards, each with more capacity than all seven US naval shipyards combined. US shipyards also have had problems finding skilled labor.

The US approach of protecting and expanding traditional platforms is evident in its various big-ticket projects, such as the DDG (X) next-generation destroyer, the Zumwalt-class hypersonic upgrade program, and the Columbia-class nuclear ballistic submarine (SSBN) programs.

Asia Times reported in June 2023 on the US DDG(X) program, which will replace aging Ticonderoga-class cruisers and Arleigh Burke-class destroyers now in service with a larger, more upgradeable design.

The DDG(X) will be armed with the same weapons as the Arleigh Burke Flight III ships, including lasers and hypersonic missiles, and is scheduled to debut in 2030 at a cost of between $3.1-3.4 billion per ship.

However, the DDG(X)’s strategic value, operational viability and sustainability are already being questioned amid growing concerns about China’s naval expansion.

A March 2023 Congressional Research Service (CRS) report outlined the operational challenges of the DDG(X) project while raising concerns about putting so much capability into a few costly and potentially vulnerable ships.

CRS emphasized the US Navy’s need for longer-ranged weapons, better command and control capability for dispersed units, the ability to replenish vertical launch systems at sea and improved decoy and other deception systems.

Furthermore, Asia Times reported in February 2023 about US plans to test a hypersonic weapon from a Zumwalt-class destroyer in 2025 as part of efforts to deter China and Russia in the Pacific. The launch is scheduled for December 2025, with careful preparations to tackle potential technical issues. An underwater weapons control system will be integrated with Tactical Support Center (TSC) control to enable message transfer for the missile launch.

However, the Zumwalt-class hull has been criticized for being unstable in rough seas and easily detectable by low-frequency radar. Only three have been built so far at $4.24 billion per hull. The US may benefit from designing a new combatant with hypersonic weapons instead of investing in more Zumwalt-class ships, some say. This is important as China and Russia possess similarly-armed combatants, giving them an edge over the US in that area.

Moreover, in June 2022, Asia Times reported that the US had begun constructing the USS District of Columbia SSBN, marking the replacement of Ohio-class boats. The Columbia-class SSBNs are set to carry 70% of the US nuclear arsenal, with the first-of-class expected to come into service in 2027.

The Columbia-class submarines will be equipped with 16 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) launch tubes, less than the 24 launchers on the Ohio-class submarines.

The reduced armament of the Columbia-class submarines allows for the use of existing components already used in the Virginia-class nuclear attack submarines (SSNs). This, in turn, helps reduce the costs of the Columbia-class propulsion plant.

The Virginia-class attack submarine Pre-Commissioning Unit (PCU) Minnesota (SSN 783) under construction at Newport News Shipbuilding on October 5, 2012. Photo: Chris Oxley / Released / US Navy

However, improvements in near-peer adversary anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities can threaten the viability of the US underwater nuclear deterrent.

Asia Times has previously reported on China’s advancements in the field, including extremely low frequency (ELF) sensors to detect the near-imperceptible bubbles produced by submarines and terahertz submarine detectors that home in on tiny surface vibrations as small as 10 nanometers produced by a low-frequency sound source in the open sea.

US policy and naval planners’ possible stubbornness in sticking with high-profile prestige warships over smaller, numerous, dispersed unmanned assets may leave the US badly exposed in an actual conflict, namely with China.

In May 2023, Asia Times reported that China had conducted the first publicized simulation of a hypersonic missile attack on the USS Gerald Ford supercarrier in a South China Sea battle. In the simulation, 24 hypersonic missiles were used to sink a supercarrier and its five escorts. The results highlighted the significance of patrol missions and lure tactics to identify targets, save limited missiles and reduce the number of enemy interceptor missiles.

 The simulation was similar to a Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) report in January 2023, which wargames a potential 2026 Chinese invasion of Taiwan. The CSIS report stated that the US and Japan lost 449 combat aircraft and 43 ships, including two carriers. The US also lost 6,960 personnel, with 3,200 killed in action in the simulation.