Join our crew and become one of the 105,285 members that receive our newsletter.

US Navy CNOs Gilday and Franchetti in Dress Uniform

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III provides remarks at the relinquishment of office ceremony for Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael M. Gilday at the U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland, (DoD photo by Chad J. McNeeley)

A Navy In Crisis: It’s Time For The Conference Of Admirals

John Konrad
Total Views: 133059
January 13, 2024

by Captain John Konrad (gCaptain OpEd) Today, the US Navy is experiencing two contrasting situations. On one hand, the USS Carney and other warships continue to demonstrate their power and capabilities in the Red Sea. On the other hand, it has been reported that the Navy’s latest ship, the Constellation class frigate, has been delayed by a year as ongoing schedule assessments are being conducted.

There is a one-year delay in the delivery of the first Constellation-class frigate, named the future USS Constellation (FFG-62). This delay is mainly due to workforce shortages at Fincantieri Marinette Marine in Wisconsin and numerous construction change orders. A legislative source has confirmed that an independent review of the shipyard’s delays has resulted in a new anticipated delivery date of 2027, as reported by the US Naval Institute.

This news comes just two weeks after USS Carney, the formidable Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer renowned for its role in safeguarding ships in the Red Sea last month, triumphantly returned to its base in the Persian Gulf. In a ceremony held in Bahrain, the entire crew was honored with navy combat medals for successfully neutralizing 14 unmanned drones launched by Houthi forces in the Red Sea.

This is the dichotomy. Operationally, the world is dazzled by the US Navy’s success but flabbergasted by the fact the Chinese Navy now has more hulls and over 200 times the shipbuilding capacity while the US Navy is unable to build a single ship on time and on budget.

There is no doubt that the best combat ships of the US Navy are effective. However, the issue lies in the fact that the Red Sea is approximately the size of California, and the US Navy lacks sufficient destroyers to escort all the ships passing through to the Suez Canal. Furthermore, the US has only managed to persuade a few nations to contribute warships in support of Operation Prosperity Guardian (OPG), the US-led coalition aimed at safeguarding merchant ships in the Red Sea.

OPG does not have enough warships to escort all the ships wishing to transit the Red Sea but the failure to do so will result in billions of dollars in costs to the global economy for each day that the Red Sea remains unsafe.

Two unfortunate facts are compounding this issue. First, the Navy’s large fleet of Littoral Combat Ships was initially designed to combat non-peer adversaries close to the shore, which is exactly the type of threat posed by the Houthis, but these ships are equipped with only eleven anti-air missiles with limited range, making it risky to deploy them to the Red Sea. Second, US Navy destroyers like the USS Carney are required to return to port to reload expensive vertically launched anti-air missiles, which takes them out of the fight.

The United States’ closest ally, the United Kingdom, has also faced a reduction in its Navy. To address this issue, they have equipped their destroyers with relatively small caliber Bofors guns as a cost-saving alternative to missiles. This strategy proved successful on Greyhound Day when the destroyer HMS Diamond shot down at least one drone using guns. Additionally, the Royal Navy has deployed at least two frigates, which are smaller versions of the powerful destroyer, to the region for assistance.

The US Navy does not have frigates to augment and extend the reach of the USS Carney.

The Navy should prioritize the installation of more guns, possibly on US Flag merchant ships and manned by Marines, as well as the acquisition of frigates, possibly taking them on loan from Korean shipbuilders. However, the US can learn an even more important lesson from the UK. As Winston Churchill immortalized, “Americans can always be trusted to do the right thing, once all other possibilities have been exhausted.”

Historians debate whether Churchill said these exact words, but they resonate with the majority of Americans who understand the shipbuilding problems America is facing. New ship designs, such as the Littoral Combat Ship, have proven to be flawed, and super-ships like the USS Zumwalt have proven to be too expensive. The Constellation class frigate is based on a proven Italian FREMM multi-mission frigate parent design, which was modified by ship designer Gibbs & Cox to meet Navy survivability and equipment requirements. However, the modification of the design has altered almost every drawing of the FREMM, causing delays and worse… second and third order problems.

The US Navy acknowledges that its main issue is the insufficient number of effective (both on the surface and undersea) hulls. This problem arises from delays and cost overruns resulting from modified design requirements, as well as a lack of investment and attention to America’s industrial base, which includes shipyards. The solution is straightforward: refrain from changing proven designs like the FREMM and prioritize the support of industrial necessities such as steel mills, weapons factories, and shipyards.

Accomplishing this is not as simple as it may sound. The US Navy does not face a shortage of ships due to insufficient budget, lack of imagination, or a lack of effort. It has genuinely exhausted all other options – at great cost – and has now set its sights on the most suitable course of action: constructing a significant number of frigates based on the FREMM design… but these ships are now delayed.

Also Read: US Navy Shipbuilding Has A Badger Problem by John Konrad

The question is: how can you ensure that a behemoth bureaucratic organization like the Department of the Navy “does the right thing”? How do you persuade the 86,000 employees of its shipbuilding arm NAVSEA to minimize paperwork, meetings, and change orders, and instead focus on building off-the-shelf designs? How do you hold program managers accountable for failures? How do you convince Congress to not only produce a few new frigates but a flood of new hulls? Moreover, with the recent news of elections in Taiwan, how can you accomplish all of this without causing additional delays?

The answer is surprisingly simple: hold a Conference of Admirals.

The US Navy is currently experiencing a high level of activity, resulting in a heavy workload for all Admirals in uniform. As a result, they cannot allocate time to solely focus on shipbuilding, even for a few days. It’s important to note that many of the department’s Flag Officers, such as Vice Admiral Christopher W. Grady, the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and US Marine Corps General Michael E. Langley, Commander of Africa Command, primarily focus on operational command rather than shipbuilding. Vice Admiral Cooper, Commander of Operation Prosperity Guardian, may be the busiest of them all. Some, like Vice Admiral Carl Chebi, Commander of Naval Air Systems Command, have their own serious problems unrelated to shipbuilding.

We need all of them for this to work because often it’s the leaders furthest from the problem who can see the solutions most clearly and have influence that comes from advocating for problems beyond their own interest.

Every few decades, the Catholic Church encounters an existential crisis. During these times, it becomes irrelevant how busy each Cardinal is or what duties they are performing. They all come back to Rome to address the issue at hand. The Sacred College of Cardinals solves this problem.

This is also true on the civilian side. During World War Two, there was a high demand for physicists. The best physicists were working on extremely important projects such as codebreaking and radar systems. However, a decision was made to gather the best physicists in Los Alamos and focus on one crucial problem: developing a bomb before Germany did.

In the case of the Navy, the comparable issue was the destruction of the fleet at Pearl Harbor. During that time, every flag officer was extremely occupied, but they all united, either physically or through communications and coordination, to address one problem: the salvage and reconstruction of America’s fleet.

Operationally, this is also true aboard the USS Carney. Despite being overworked and incredibly busy, when the general alarm sounded to notify the crew of the Houthi’s barrage of drones, every sailor stopped their tasks and promptly went to battle stations. Their sole focus was on the imminent threat of incoming explosive warheads.

It’s time for Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro and Chief Of Naval Operations Admiral Lisa Franchetti, to sound the alarm and recall all Admirals. This includes not only Navy Admirals and Marine Generals but also US Coast Guard, NOAA, and US Merchant Service Admirals who are currently facing the same shipbuilding challenges as Del Toro brilliantly explained in his recent address to Harvard.

There is one important caveat. When I was appointed captain of BP’s most technologically advanced and complicated ship, which was in the earliest stages of being built, I was completely overwhelmed by the sheer amount of work and number of problems ahead. What allowed us to complete that ship on time and on budget was by focusing on just one problem a day. Not just any problem, but the single most important problem that could prevent the hull from getting wet on delivery date. 

Any senior leadership meeting runs the risk of falling apart as parochial problems cloud the primary objective. This conference cannot solve all the problems of the Navy, it must only solve this ONE most existential crisis. Before attending this conference it would be helpful if every Admiral read the first chapter in Garry Keller’s seminal book The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth About Extraordinary Results.

It was the ability of the USS Carney to focus on ONE threat that allowed it to achieve incredible results.

With the increase in China’s Navy and the growing geopolitical threats in the world’s oceans, the US Navy is facing a critical situation with the Constellation class frigate. It is imperative for the Secretary of the Navy to raise awareness by sounding the general alarm to convene an all-hands meeting for every flag officer. During this meeting, each Admiral must be tasked with addressing the Navy’s one most pressing issue today, its one truly existential threat: expediting the launch of hulls.

And no Admiral should be allowed to leave this conference until white smoke signifies that all support whatever plan they decide on.

Also Read: US Navy Shipbuilding Has A Badger Problem by John Konrad

Related Book: How Big Things Get Done: The Surprising Factors That Determine the Fate of Every Project by Bent Flyvbjerg

Unlock Exclusive Insights Today!

Join the gCaptain Club for curated content, insider opinions, and vibrant community discussions.

Sign Up
Back to Main
polygon icon polygon icon

Why Join the gCaptain Club?

Access exclusive insights, engage in vibrant discussions, and gain perspectives from our CEO.

Sign Up


Maritime and offshore news trusted by our 105,285 members delivered daily straight to your inbox.

Join Our Crew

Join the 105,285 members that receive our newsletter.