Top Stories 2020: COVID-19 Pandemic

This post is part of a series of stories looking back at the top naval news from 2020. The coronavirus pandemic affected almost everything the Navy did in 2020, from the way the service deploys forces, to the way its contractors built ships and weapons, to the way sailors and officers were educated and trained. The […]

Sailors prepare to man the rails as the Navy’s only forward-deployed aircraft carrier, USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76), returns to Yokosuka, Japan following a six-month underway period. US Navy Photo

This post is part of a series of stories looking back at the top naval news from 2020.

The coronavirus pandemic affected almost everything the Navy did in 2020, from the way the service deploys forces, to the way its contractors built ships and weapons, to the way sailors and officers were educated and trained.

The outbreak on USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) gained the most attention due to the scale of the outbreak – more than 1,200 personnel were infected – and the political fallout – the ship’s captain was fired by then-Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly, who then, in turn, was fired for his handling of the outbreak. Though garnering less attention, dozens of other ships and bases saw cases, too, which they had to quickly quell with new and evolving Navy protocol before they spread out of control.

Since February – when Navy personnel stationed in Italy first had to worry about growing infection rates and looming lockdowns – 29,060 Navy sailors, dependents, civilians and contractors have contracted the disease. Two sailors have died, as have 26 civilians, 12 contractors and one dependent.

Theodore Roosevelt Outbreak

Sailors assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) move meals, ready to eat (MREs) for sailors who have tested negative for COVID-19 on April 7, 2020. US Navy Photo

The Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group deployed Jan. 17, when the virus was still largely a problem for China and surrounding countries. The aircraft carrier implemented some mitigation steps such as bleaching hard surfaces twice a day, but the risk was considered so minimal that a port call to Vietnam was made March 5, with U.S. Pacific Fleet leadership flying in for a 400-person reception to mark the carrier’s historic visit to Da Nang. Thirty reporters were brought out to the carrier for tours.

As the port call was ending, 39 sailors from the carrier were put into quarantine after it was discovered that two British travelers staying at their hotel were infected, but by March 14 they had all tested negative for the disease and were let out of quarantine. Carrier onboard delivery, or COD, flights continued to and from the ship throughout much of March.

On March 24, the first three sailors were diagnosed with COVID-19. Navy leadership denied the outbreak was tied to the port call in Vietnam. The three sick sailors were flown off the ship to quarantine on Guam.

Adm. John Aquilino discusses the Expeditionary Medical Facility (EMF) with Capt. Jerry Hutchinson, EMF executive officer on Guam on May 3, 2020. US Navy Photo

Two days later, the carrier pulled into Guam. At the time, the Navy said they had found “several” more cases on the ship, though by April 1 that rose to 93 positive cases, by April 12 it was 585 positive cases, and by April 14 it was 950 sailors. In total, more than 1,200 sailors, or about a quarter of those in the ship’s crew and air wing, contracted the disease.

Following a March 30 memo from then-TR Commanding Officer Capt. Brett Crozier, on March 31 PACFLT Commander Adm. John Aquilino said the Navy was looking for government housing and hotel rooms for sailors on TR to quarantine ashore.

Capt. Brett Crozier, then-commanding officer of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71), addresses the crew during an all-hands call on the ship’s flight deck on Nov. 15, 2019. US Navy Photo

Though most of the sick sailors were able to quarantine in single-person rooms and wait out the illness, one was found unresponsive in his room during the twice-daily medical checks. Aviation Ordnanceman Chief Petty Officer Charles Robert Thacker Jr., 41, died April 13 in U.S. Naval Hospital Guam from complications from COVID-19.

After 55 days in Guam battling the outbreak, the carrier returned to sea on May 20 with about half its crew to begin workups ahead of resuming the deployment. A minimal crew was used during this event, as many were still completing their quarantines and awaiting two consecutive negative COVID tests. On June 3 the carrier picked up the air wing and much of the rest of the crew. The carrier rejoined its strike group and remained on deployment in the Pacific until July 9.

Leadership Fallout

Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly speaks to Sailors aboard the Military Sealift Command hospital ship USNS Mercy (T-AH-19) from across the brow via the ship’s 1-MC public address system, March 31, 2020. US Navy Photo

Even as Theodore Roosevelt was tied to the pier in Guam, the ripples from the outbreak were being felt at the Pentagon.

After Crozier’s March 30 memo was leaked to the San Francisco Chronicle, reactions were mixed: some were horrified that the sailors on TR had to face the deadly outbreak with so little help from their chain of command, while others were shocked that Crozier went around that chain of command and blasted out his plea for more rapid assistance even as plans were already in the works.

Modly fired Crozier on April 2, saying he “demonstrated extremely poor judgment in the middle of a crisis.” In the immediate aftermath, President Donald Trump and then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper expressed support for Modly’s decision.

However, Modly flew to Guam and spoke to the sailors on April 6, telling them in a mix of prepared remarks and off-the-cuff comments – which were recorded and leaked to the press – that Crozier may have committed a “serious violation of the Uniformed Code of Military Justice” and was not fit to command a carrier. After the speech audio was leaked, Modly tried to apologize, but the damage was done: lawmakers quickly began calling for his resignation. Modly resigned the next day.

A preliminary investigation by Navy uniformed leadership into the handling of the outbreak on the carrier was set to end April 6, but its release dragged, with word leaking in late April that Navy leadership wanted to reinstate Crozier as skipper of the carrier. After Esper suggested there may be more questions that needed to be answered, a longer investigation spanned until late May, and ultimately on June 19 the Navy announced Crozier would not be reinstated as captain of TR.

USS Kidd, Other Ships

Lt. Cmdr. Andrew Sullivan, assigned to Commander, Naval Surface Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet Medical Readiness Division, center, addresses the medical team while preparing for Sailors aboard the guided-missile destroyer USS Kidd (DDG-100) as part of the Navy response to the COVID-19 outbreak on board the ship on April 28 , 2020. US Navy Photo

Theodore Roosevelt was the ship hit hardest by COVID, but it was not hit first.

By mid-March, sailors assigned to San Diego-based ships USS Boxer (LHD-4), USS Ralph Johnson (DDG-114) and USS Coronado (LCS-4) had already tested positive for COVID-19, as had four Naval Special Warfare sailors training at Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor. On March 24, the day the Navy announced three TR sailors had been diagnosed with COVID-19, 54 other sailors had already been diagnosed with the disease elsewhere in the fleet. Around that time, PACFLT ceased announcing which ships and units were affected by COVID, calling it “a matter of operational security.”

Still, the Navy couldn’t hide another outbreak on a deployed ship: USS Kidd (DDG-100). The destroyer had been serving in the Theodore Roosevelt CSG, but the sailors were not involved in the Vietnam port call or in contact with the ship’s crew or air wing. In April, Kidd peeled away from the CSG – with the carrier in port in Guam – to serve in U.S. Southern Command as part of a counter-drug effort. On April 24, the Navy confirmed 18 sailors on the ship had tested positive, even though a month had passed since the ship made its last port call in Hawaii.

The crew of Charles de Gaulle wear masks while underway. French Navy Photo

Amphibious assault ship USS Makin Island (LHD-8) was ordered to rendezvous with Kidd in the Eastern Pacific to lend its fleet surgical team, intensive care unit, ventilators and testing capability if the Navy needed to treat the outbreak at sea. After 15 sailors were moved to Makin Island for treatment and two more flown ashore for care, the Navy ordered Kidd to return to San Diego.

American sailors weren’t the only ones facing the disease: an April outbreak on French aircraft carrier FS Charles de Gaulle (R91) quickly numbered in the hundreds, with ultimately about two thirds of the crew – 1,046 sailors out of 1,760 – plus a few dozen on other ships assigned to the carrier strike group contracting COVID-19. In October, more than 30 members of the crew of the U.K. Royal Navy ballistic-missile submarine HMS Vigilant (S30) tested positive for COVID-19 following a port visit to Navy Submarine Base Kings Bay in Georgia. In early October, most of the Joint Chiefs of Staff were in quarantine after Vice Commandant of the Coast Guard Adm. Charles Ray tested positive for the disease following a meeting with the Joint Chiefs.

Safety Protocols

Sailors assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) stand-by to depart the ship for quarantine after completing essential watch standing duties on April 25, 2020. US Navy Photo

By the time a small group of sailors on USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) tested positive for COVID-19 in early September, the Navy had refined its protocols well enough to avoid a major outbreak.

Starting with the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group workups and deployment in April, a ship’s crew had to quarantine for 14 days before heading to sea, and the squadrons conducted their quarantine at their home stations before flying out to the carrier. Because of the need to quarantine for two weeks ahead of going to sea, the Navy changed up the schedule for pre-deployment training and certification. Previously the ships would go to sea for advanced phase training such as the Surface Warfare Advanced Tactical Training, come home, regather for a Composite Training Unit Exercise (COMPTUEX) certification exercise, go home to bid their families farewell, and then deploy. Now, with the threat of a COVID infection rising every time the sailors left their bubble and went home, the Navy decided to consolidate all the activities, with the ships heading out to sea for training and certification and then flowing right into their deployment. Creating a COVID-free bubble, plus buying enough test kits for ships to use prior to and during deployments as well as implementing social distancing and mask-wearing policies, was thought to create safe enough conditions for the Navy to continue deploying as needed around the globe during 2020.

Though safer for the sailors deploying, the Navy has broken several records this year for most at-sea time, since the sailors have been at sea with no breaks for not only the seven-month deployment but also all the training that led up to deploying.

The Blue Angels, flies over the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75) on May 20, 2020. US Navy Photo

As the Navy worked its way through figuring out how to get its first strike group, the Nimitz CSG, out the door without any COVID cases, the service decided it needed to have a COVID-free carrier ready in case of emergency. As a result, the Harry S. Truman CSG was ordered to stay off the coast of Virginia upon the completion of its deployment to the Middle East. Until Nimitz CSG was certified and ready for national tasking, the Navy couldn’t take any chances with Truman CSG sailors coming home, getting sick, and then being asked to get back to sea for an emergency assignment. That at-sea loitering lasted from about April 13 to June 16.

Adding to the burden of longer at-sea times was the inability to safely set up port calls during deployments. In the early days of the pandemic, the Navy in late February called for a 14-day period between port calls in U.S. 7th Fleet – a “prudent” step “to protect our ports and prevent any particular spread to our allies and partners and, obviously, protect our forces,” the Navy said – but that turned into an all-out ban on port calls by late March. A handful of “safe haven” ports were created, including the first one in Guam in June, so sailors could get off their ships and have access to cell phone reception without coming into contact with anyone outside their crewmates. However, not all ships had access to safe haven ports, leading to some difficult deployments this year: USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69), for example, was at sea for 161 consecutive days during its deployment.

Other major changes for the Navy revolved around moving new recruits around for basic training and follow-on job training, as well as allowing for permanent change of station moves around the globe.

What started out as blanket bans on movement, liberty and other opportunities for sailors to be exposed to the virus became more nuanced as the Navy and the world learned more about COVID-19. On March 15 Esper announced a stop-movement order initially set to last two months, though in May it was extended to late June. As it became clear that the military would have to learn to live with COVID-19 for at least another year, the policies restricting movement became more conditions-based, allowing local base commanders to play a greater role in determining when it was safe for them to “reopen” for personnel movements again, for example. After a short halt in bringing new recruits to basic training, they were allowed into training after completing a 14-day restriction of movement (ROM) quarantine ahead of time – for a time, that ROM was conducted in a closed water park in Illinois due to lack of single-person rooms at the recruit station – and once in basic training they were kept in a “bubble” that saw them through their initial military occupational specialty training and into their first assignments, having no contact with the outside world and no leave time until they had successfully completed training.

Hospital Ship Responses

Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class Yesenia Ocenasek, from Camp Pendleton, Calif., inventories medical equipment in the sterilization processing department aboard the hospital ship USNS Mercy (T-AH-19) on May 6, 2020. US Navy Photo

When New York City was facing a nightmarish situation early in the pandemic, and then soon after Los Angeles-area hospitals were overwhelmed too, the idea of deploying Navy hospital ships to alleviate the stress on overflowing hospitals was exciting to many.

By March 17 USNS Mercy (T-AH-19) and USNS Comfort (T-AH-20) were beginning to get activated, and the next day Trump said Comfort would deploy to New York City. Mercy was originally expected to go to Seattle, whose suburbs had the very first outbreaks in the United States, but on March 23 the ship left San Diego for a short trip up to Los Angeles, which was deemed more likely to have patient need surpassing hospital capacity. Comfort left Norfolk, Va., for New York on March 28.

USNS Comfort (T-AH 20) conducts scheduled lifeboat training in accordance with US Coast Guard certification and watch keeping regulations before returning to Naval Station Norfolk on May 1, 2020. The ship and its embarked medical task force remain prepared for future tasking. The Navy, along with other U.S. Northern Command dedicated forces, remains engaged throughout the nation in support of the broader COVID-19 response. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Sara Eshleman US Navy Photo

Though expectations were high, the ships did not contribute as much as expected: the plan was to bring non-COVID patients to the ships, allowing the staffs there to focus on trauma care and heart attacks, while the city hospitals with better ventilation and isolation capabilities focused on the highly infectious disease. Instead, the screening process proved too cumbersome to bring in patients in great numbers, and patients brought to the ships for things like broken bones turned out to have COVID too.

By late April, Comfort left New York City having treated 182 patients, and Mercy left Los Angeles after treating 77 patients.

USNI News Fleet and Marine Tracker: Dec. 28, 2020

These are the approximate positions of the U.S. Navy’s deployed carrier strike groups and amphibious ready groups throughout the world as of Dec. 28, 2020, based on Navy and public data. In cases where a CSG or ARG is conducting disaggregated operations, the chart reflects the location of the capital ship. Total U.S. Navy Battle […]

USNI News Image

These are the approximate positions of the U.S. Navy’s deployed carrier strike groups and amphibious ready groups throughout the world as of Dec. 28, 2020, based on Navy and public data. In cases where a CSG or ARG is conducting disaggregated operations, the chart reflects the location of the capital ship.

Total U.S. Navy Battle Force:

297

Ships Underway

Deployed Ships Underway Non-deployed Ships Underway Total Ships Underway
49 1 50

Ships Deployed by Fleet

Fleet Forces 3rd Fleet 4th Fleet 5th Fleet 6th Fleet 7th Fleet Total
0 6 4 21 16 51 98

In Japan

CMDCM(SW/AW) Randy Bell, USS America (LHA-6) command master chief, right, presents a wreath to Master Chief Petty Officer Tatayuki Ono, CMC of JS Ise (DDH 182), during a kadomatsu exchange between the ships on Dec. 23, 2020. Kadomatsu, or ‘gate pines,’ are a Japanese New Year tradition for good luck. US Navy Photo

USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) is in port in Yokosuka, Japan.

Reagan, which is the service’s forward-deployed carrier, pulled into its homeport of Yokosuka, Japan, on Nov. 14. Japan-based U.S. carriers typically make two shorter patrols every year, with a maintenance period in Yokosuka.

USS America (LHA-6) is in port in Sasebo, Japan.

In the Indian Ocean

Capt. Max Clark, commanding officer of the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN-68), patches in a 1MC address from Vice President Mike Pence to sailors and Marines aboard Nimitz. US Navy Photo

USS Nimitz (CVN-68) and the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group (CSG) are operating off the Horn of Africa, USNI News reported last week.

The Makin Island Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) with the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) embarked is now in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility. The ARG includes amphibious assault ship USS Makin Island (LHD-8) and amphibious transport docks USS Somerset (LPD-25) and USS San Diego (LPD-22).

Makin Island Amphibious Ready Group, consisting of USS Makin Island (LHD-8), USS Somerset (LPD-25), USS San Diego (LPD-22), and embarked 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit; and USS Hershel ‘Woody’ Williams (ESB-4) conduct maritime operations off the coast of Somalia under Joint Task Force – Quartz in support of Operation Octave Quartz (OOQ) Dec. 22, 2020. US Navy Photo

The 15th MEU consists of the Command Element; the Aviation Combat Element comprised of Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 164 (Reinforced); the Ground Combat Element comprised of Battalion Landing Team 1/4; and the Logistics Combat Element comprised of Combat Logistics Battalion 15. Other units include Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 23, Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron 49, Tactical Air Control Squadron 11, Beach Master Unit 1, and Fleet Surgical Team 1 from San Diego and Assault Craft Unit 5 from Camp Pendleton, Calif.

Arriving Dec. 21, both the Nimitz CSG and the Makin Island ARG are in place off the coast of Somalia providing operational and close air support to Joint Task Force – Quartz and Operation Octave Quartz. Octave Quartz is the U.S. mission to reposition 700 troops from Somalia to other parts of the region.

USS Hershel “Woody” Williams (ESB-4) is participating in the operation. Commissioned on March 7, Williams is a Lewis B. Puller-class expeditionary mobile base and is based in Souda Bay in Crete.

Carrier Strike Group 11

Electronics Technician Seaman Chris Harrison (left), from Overton, Texas, and Electronics Technician Christopher Burton (right), from Aynor, S.C., troubleshoot a satellite dish aboard the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN-68) on Dec. 15, 2020. US Navy Photo

San Diego-based CSG 11 commands the Nimitz CSG and is embarked on the carrier.

Aircraft carrier
USS Nimitz (CVN-68), homeported in Bremerton, Wash.

Carrier Air Wing 17

An F/A-18E Super Hornet, from the ‘Kestrels’ of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 137, launches off of the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN-68) to provide close-air support to Operation Octave Quartz on Dec. 28, 2020. US Navy Photo

Carrier Air Wing 17, based at Naval Air Station Lemoore, Calif., is embarked on Nimitz and includes a total of nine squadrons and detachments:

  • The “Redcocks” of VFA 22 – Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) F/A-18F Super Hornet – from Naval Air Station Lemoore, Calif.
  • The “Kestrels” of VFA137 F/A-18 E – from Naval Air Station Lemoore, Calif.
  • The “Mighty Shrikes” of VFA 94 F/A-18F – from Naval Air Station Lemoore, Calif.
  • The “Death Rattlers” of VMFA-323 F/A-18C – from Marine Corps Air Station Miramar San Diego, Calif.
  • The “Cougars” of VAQ-139 – Electronic Attack Squadron (VAQ) EA-18G Growlers – from Naval Air Station Whidbey Island – Wash.
  • The “Sun Kings” of VAW-116 –Carrier Airborne Early Warning Squadron (VAW) E2C Hawkeye – from Naval Air Station Point Mugu, Calif.
  • The “Providers” of VRC-30 – Detachment – Fleet Logistics Support Squadron (VRC) C-2 – from Naval Air Station North Island, Calif.
  • The “Screamin’ Indians” of HSC-6 – Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) MH-60S– from Naval Air Station North Island, Calif.
  • The “Battlecats” of HSM-73 – Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron (HSM) MH-60R – from Naval Air Station North Island, Calif.

Cruiser

Aviation Maintenance Administrationman Robert Mudolo, from Coram, N.Y., assigned to the ‘Battlecats’ of Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron (HSM) 73, prepares to give the pilots of an MH-60R Sea Hawk helicopter start up instructions during night flight operations on the flight deck of the guided-missile cruiser USS Princeton (CG-59) in the North Arabian Sea on Dec. 5. US Navy Photo

USS Princeton (CG-59), homeported in San Diego, Calif.

Destroyer Squadron 9

Destroyer Squadron 9 is based at Naval Station Everett, Wash. The DESRON commodore and staff are embarked on Nimitz.

  • USS John Paul Jones (DDG-53), homeported in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii
  • USS Sterett (DDG-104), homeported in San Diego, Calif.
  • USS Ralph Johnson (DDG-114), homeported in Everett, Wash.

In the Persian Gulf

On Dec. 21, U.S. 5th Fleet announced that nuclear guided-missile submarine USS Georgia (SSBN-729) entered the Persian Gulf.

“SSGNs are one of the most versatile platforms in the fleet, equipped with superior communications capabilities and the ability to carry up to 154 Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles. The platform can also be configured to host up to 66 Special Operations Forces,” reads the statement from U.S. 5th Fleet.

Announcing an SSGN operating in the Persian Gulf is a rare move for the service and this public disclosure is intended as a message both to Iran and U.S. regional allies, USNI News understands.

In the Eastern Pacific

USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) and the Arleigh-burke class guided-missile destroyer USS Russell (DDG-59) transit the Pacific Ocean on Dec. 18, 2020. US Navy Photo

The Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group completed its sustainment exercise (SUSTEX) and began a scheduled deployment Dec. 23. The strike group is headed west.

Carrier Strike Group 9
The San Diego-based CSG 9 commands the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group and is embarked on the carrier.

Aircraft carrier
USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71), homeported in San Diego, Calif.

Carrier Air Wing 11

Aviation Structural Mechanic 3rd Class Arattakhan Khammany, from Abbeville, La., conducts maintenance on an MH-60R Sea Hawk helicopter assigned to the ‘The Wolf Pack’ of Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron (HSM) 75 in the hangar bay of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) on Dec. 18, 2020. US Navy Photo

Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 11, based at Naval Air Station Lemoore, Calif., is embarked aboard Theodore Roosevelt and includes a total of nine squadrons and detachments:

  • The “Tomcatters” of VFA-31 – Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) – from Naval Air Station Oceana, Va.
  • The “Golden Warriors” of VFA-87 from Naval Air Station Oceana, Va.
  • The “Blue Diamonds” of VFA-146 from Naval Air Station Lemoore, Calif.
  • The “Black Knights” of VFA-154 from Naval Air Station Lemoore – Calif.
  • The “Gray Wolves” of VAQ-142 – Electronic Attack Squadron (VAQ) – from Naval Air Station Whidbey Island – Wash.
  • The “Liberty Bells” of VAW-115 – Carrier Airborne Early Warning Squadron (VAW) – from Naval Air Station Point Mugu, Calif.
  • The “Providers” of VRC-30 – Detachment – Fleet Logistics Support Squadron (VRC) – from Naval Air Station North Island, Calif.
  • The “Eight Ballers” of HSC-8 – Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) – from Naval Air Station North Island, Calif.
  • The “Wolf Pack” of HSM-75 – Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron (HSM) – from Naval Air Station North Island, Calif.

Cruiser

USS Bunker Hill (CG-52) anchors in the Pacific Ocean on Dec. 20, 2020. US Navy Photo

  • USS Bunker Hill (CG-52), homeported in San Diego, Calif.

Destroyer Squadron 23

Fire Controlman 2nd Class Andrew Hood, from Knoxville, Tenn., inspects the Phalanx close-in weapons system (CIWS) aboard the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Russell (DDG-59) Dec. 21, 2020. US Navy Photo

Destroyer Squadron 23 is based in San Diego and is embarked on the carrier.

  • USS Russell (DDG-59), homeported in San Diego, Calif.
  • USS John Finn (DDG-113), homeported in San Diego, Calif.

In addition to these major formations, not shown are thousands of others serving in submarines, individual surface ships, aircraft squadrons, SEALs, Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Forces, Seabees, Coast Guard cutters, EOD Mobile Units, and more serving throughout the globe.

Top Stories 2020: U.S. Navy Acquisition

This post is part of a series of stories looking back at the top naval news from 2020. 2020 may be among the most consequential years for Navy acquisition in recent memory, with the service making big moves in support of its Distributed Maritime Operations operating concept. 2020 was the year the Navy officially started construction […]

Attack boat Vermont (SSN-792) float-off on March 29, 2019. General Dynamics Electric Boats Photo

This post is part of a series of stories looking back at the top naval news from 2020. 2020 may be among the most consequential years for Navy acquisition in recent memory, with the service making big moves in support of its Distributed Maritime Operations operating concept. 2020 was the year the Navy officially started construction on the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine program, a massive every-other-generation effort to replace the sea-based nuclear deterrent subs. It was also the year the Constellation-class guided-missile frigate program was awarded to Fincantieri, who will design and build what will become a centerpiece of the future distributed fleet. It was the year the Navy called for an end to the F/A-18E-F Super Hornet program, reinvesting that money into a longer-range next-generation fighter that could help silence critics who say the aircraft carrier will be useless against China because the air wing’s range is too short. And it was the year the Navy and its Marine Corps partners moved out on a Light Amphibious Warship that could revolutionize how the Fleet Marine Force moves around a maritime theater in support of sea control and sea denial.

Surface Ships

Fincantieri FFG(X) Design based on the FREMM. Fincantieri Image

The surface fleet is among the parts of the Navy most changed by Distributed Maritime Operations. Rather than the Navy’s recent reliance on guided-missile cruisers and destroyers to drill with allies and partners, patrol chokepoints and conduct freedom of navigation operations, the Navy will instead rely on a large fleet of small combatants to do much of this day-to-day work, freeing up a smaller number of destroyers to conduct higher-end operations and haul around large, long-range missiles. Key to this plan is the success of the Constellation-class frigate. The Navy awarded a $795-million contract to Fincantieri on April 30 to do detail design work and build the first frigate in the class. Options for as many as nine more ships would bring the total value to $5.58 billion if exercised. Fincantieri beat out four other competitors with a design based on the FREMM multi-mission frigate already operated by the French and Italian navies. It will build the frigate at its Marinette Marine shipyard in Wisconsin. In October, the class officially received a name, with Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite announcing the first-in-class ship would be USS Constellation (FFG-62) – after it was nearly named USS Agility by former SECNAV Thomas Modly earlier in the year. Though there will be fewer large combatants in the fleet, their mission will remain important: Navy leadership has said the large combatants of the future will haul around the biggest missiles, including hypersonic weapons.

USS Detroit (LCS-7) sails in formation with the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers USS Lassen (DDG-82), USS Preble (DDG-88) and USS Farragut (DDG-99) while conducting maritime security operations in the Caribbean Sea. US Navy Photo

The Navy is still struggling to figure out how to get the ship it needs for a price it can afford, given the deemphasis on the large combatant portfolio in future fleet plans. What was once a 2023 start to the Large Surface Combatant program was pushed to 2025 and then 2026 – and this year, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday said the large combatant, which he calls “DDG-Next,” will begin detail design in 2026 and construction in 2028. New and important to the DMO concept – and the related Marine Corps concepts of Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment (LOCE) and Expeditionary Advance Base Operations (EABO) – are the Light Amphibious Warship (LAW) and the Next-Generation Logistics Ship (NGLS) programs that kicked off this year. After some Marine Corps officials had kicked around the idea of a stern-landing vessel for EABO operations last year, in February the Navy included in its Fiscal Year 2021 budget request $30 million each to begin working on the new amphib and new logistics ship.

Sea Transport Solutions Image

Throughout the summer, the vision of what LAW would become grew clearer, as the Marines made the case for small units operating outside the Amphibious Ready Group/Marine Expeditionary Unit construct. These units would move from shore to shore, providing the joint force forward refueling and rearming capabilities in remote locations, collecting intelligence, providing anti-ship and even anti-submarine strike capabilities, and more. Their small footprint and maneuverability with the LAWs would make them hard for an adversary to detect and hit. By the fall, a cost estimate of about $100 million apiece, as well as requirements for length, storage capacity, crewing and more emerged, showing the dedication to begin buying the ships in FY 2022. According to the long-range shipbuilding plan that accompanied the release of Battle Force 2045, the Next-Generation Logistics Ship would kick off procurement in FY 2023, though much less is known about that new ship compared to the LAW. This medium-sized ship would be able to help resupply the distributed Navy and Marine forces operating under DMO and EABO, while blending in with local merchant traffic and being harder for an adversary to target and disrupt the flow of supplies into theater. It’s unclear how far along the Navy is in developing its requirements. A previous effort for a somewhat larger set of ships to do resupply and other missions, called the Common Hull Auxiliary Multi-mission Platform (CHAMP), has hit several roadblocks as its price tag remains higher than Navy and White House officials are comfortable spending on an auxiliary ship.

Submarines

Virginia-class submarine Delaware (SSN-791) was moved out of a construction facility into a floating dry dock using a transfer car system in 2018. HII Photo

The Navy in November awarded $9.47 billion to General Dynamics Electric Boat to officially start construction on the first ballistic-missile submarine in the Columbia class. This SSBN program is the Navy’s all-important program with no room for error or delays, after all schedule margin was eaten up in the early days of the program and the future USS Columbia (SSBN-826) must be ready for its first patrol in the fall of 2030. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the Columbia program remained on track, in a nod to the importance on the program and the Navy prioritizing resources – available workers, materials and money – to keeping this program on track, even if it means attack submarines or aircraft carriers slipping in schedule. Still, though the program has remained on track, the Navy announced last month it was looking at extending the life of the legacy Ohio-class SSBNs – again – to provide a bit of additional capacity for combatant commanders and a bit of cushion in case there are hiccups in the future with the Columbia program. Partly as a result of keeping Columbia on track, the Virginia-class attack submarines slipped further behind in production this year, after already having some schedule delays as the program tried to maintain a two-a-year production rate. Threatening to further challenge the program was a White House proposal to buy just one SSN in FY 2021, which would throw off the workflow for thousands of suppliers trying to smoothly ramp up their production rates to accommodate both the Virginia and the Columbia programs. The White House reversed course in late November and expressed support for a second Virginia sub. Looking towards the future, the Navy this year made headway planning for its Block VI Virginia design – which would add new capability and lethality such as improved stealth and the ability to conduct seabed warfare – as well as the SSN(X) design that would build upon both Block VI and the Columbia SSBN design. All told, the Navy is trying to morph its attack submarine fleet to something closer to the Seawolf class, which was designed to operate deep into Soviet waters and go head-to-head with peer adversary subs, compared to the Virginia class which was originally designed for land-attack and intelligence-collection missions.

Carrier Aviation

Sailors assigned to the air department aboard the aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) prepare to launch an F/A-18F Super Hornet attached to the Gladiators of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 106 during flight operations, March 29, 2020. US Navy Photo

Even as the Navy continued on with its Ford-class carriers this year, questions began swirling about the class’s future and what might come next to either replace or to supplement the Ford-class supercarrier. In March, Modly kicked off a Blue-Ribbon Future Carrier 2030 Task Force to look at the future of aircraft carriers and whether the U.S. Navy would stick with the Ford class beyond the future Doris Miller (CVN-81), whether it would move to a different nuclear-powered carrier design, or whether it would use conventionally powered carriers. Despite the prominent figures on the task force, it was not particularly well received: any reduction in demand for nuclear ship components could break the fragile industrial base, some worried, while others were concerned that the 11-carrier fleet was already overworked today and that the task force could lead to a reduction in CVNs in the future without a reduction in demand for their presence in theater. Though the study itself was canceled just two months later by Acting SECNAV James McPherson, the idea lingered: former Defense Secretary Mark Esper became interested in the notion of a conventionally powered light carrier to supplement the nuclear-powered supercarrier, and after months of study he settled on a plan to field eight to 11 CVNs – possibly down from today’s 11 – and supplement them with as many as six CVLs. He and Navy officials conceded that much work needed to be done to figure out what the CVL would look like and how to balance the two classes of ships.

Aviation Ordnancemen assigned to USS Gerald R. Ford’s (CVN 78) weapons department bring inert training bombs up to the flight deck during flight operations May 30, 2020. Ford is underway in the Atlantic Ocean conducting integrated air wing operations. US Navy photo.

Despite the questions about the future of carriers, the Ford-class program continued along, with USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) at times spending more days at sea than in port to conduct post-delivery tests and trials and get ready for full-ship shock trials next summer. Despite PDT&T moving ahead of schedule and the troubled Advanced Weapons Elevators finally coming online in numbers, the Navy fired its CVN-78 program manager and brought in a captain with “proven program management acumen and extensive waterfront experience” to see Ford through its remaining work before being fully turned over to the fleet for a maiden deployment.

Aircraft

An F/A-18E Super Hornet, attached to the ‘Dambusters’ of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 195, prepares to land on the flight deck of USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) on Oct. 16, 2020. US Navy Photo

In a major move for carrier aviation, the Navy announced in February in its FY 2021 budget request that it would not continue Super Hornet production beyond the end of the current multiyear contract, which runs through FY 2021. Funding that had been planned for another contract for FY 2022 through 2024 would instead be diverted to “accelerated development of Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) and other key aviation wholeness investments.” With little fanfare, the Navy stood up an NGAD program office under Naval Air Systems Command in May and quickly began industry talks. Though investing in NGAD was the primary reason for ending the Super Hornet line, the Navy also said that stopping new Super Hornet production would free up the production line for Super Hornet life extension work, which the Navy needs to add capability to the jets and keep them around long enough for a replacement to be designed and built.

Sailors assigned to Fleet Logistics Multi-Mission Squadron (VRM) 30 direct a CMV-22B Osprey from the ‘Titans’ of VRM 30 on the flight deck of Nimitz-class nuclear aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) on Nov. 20, 2020. US Navy Photo

Supporting a near-term change for the carrier air wing, Bell-Boeing delivered the first CMV-22B Osprey to the Navy in February, allowing the Navy to start a short test and evaluation program before turning the aircraft over to the operational squadron that will support the first deployment in 2021. The Navy needs the CMV-22 to serve as its new carrier onboard delivery (COD) platform because the legacy C-2 Greyhound cannot carry a large F-35C engine; the Osprey could carry the engine out to an aircraft carrier and would also have the added flexibility of being able to bring people and supplies directly to the other ships in the strike group, which can support the V-22 landing on their helicopter decks. USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) will make the first deployment with the F-35C in 2021, so the CMV-22 needs to be ready too for that deployment. Looking a few years out, the Navy is making good progress on its MQ-25A Stingray unmanned carrier-based refueling tanker. In April the Navy exercised a contract option to buy three more aircraft from Boeing, and in December the Stingray made its first flight with the refueling system attached under its wings.

Unmanned Systems

Medium Displacement Unmanned Surface Vehicle (MDUSV) prototype Sea Hunter pulls into Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii on Oct. 31, 2018. US Navy Photo

In other unmanned news, the Navy set off down a path to design and build medium and large unmanned surface vessels of its own, after earlier work had been done with Pentagon-purchased USVs. L3 Technologies in July won a $35-million contract to develop a prototype Medium Unmanned Surface Vehicle (MUSV), with options for eight follow-on craft that could bring the contract to a value of $281 million. In September, the Navy awarded six companies contracts to begin determining what the service’s Large Unmanned Surface Vehicle will look like. Austal USA, Huntington Ingalls Industries, Fincantieri Marinette, Bollinger Shipyards, Lockheed Martin and Gibbs & Cox each won about $7 million for LUSV design studies. Using Pentagon-built prototypes, the Navy operated the Sea Hunter medium USV with a carrier strike group this year, and an Overlord large USV conducted the first-ever autonomous transit of the Panama Canal as it sailed from the Gulf of Mexico to Southern California. In the undersea domain, just this week the Navy released its final request for proposals for the Snakehead Large Displacement Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (LDUUV) program, with the intention to select a single vendor next year to begin designing and building two prototypes.

Plans and Budgets

USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) and USS Nimitz (CVN-68) and their carrier strike groups (CSGs) steam in formation on July 6, 2020. US Navy Photo

Though many of these moves in 2020 will be instrumental in creating the fleet the Navy and Marine Corps know they need to deter China or win a fight if needed – especially the unmanned vessels, the light amphib and the frigate – the exact future shipbuilding plans for the Navy are still unclear. After the Navy and Marine Corps wrapped up an Integrated Naval Force Structure Assessment in January, Esper did not agree it was the right plan. He ultimately kicked off a Pentagon-led Future Naval Force Study that worked from February to October to look at what the sea services needed to do to be prepared to beat China in a fight in the 2045 timeframe. This effort led to a Battle Force 2045 plan that had all the same themes as the Navy’s original INFSA earlier in the year. The Pentagon couched the differences as a matter of timelines and how aggressively to begin making changes: The Navy had been focused on a 2030 timeframe and what needed to happen quickly to overhaul the fleet in the next decade to support DMO, LOCE and EABO. The Pentagon instead took a longer view meant to incorporate what kind of threat China could ultimately become in the long run and therefore what the Navy and Marines would need to do to counter it – with the expectation that transformation would start now with that 2045 threat in mind. The plan will need buy-in from lawmakers, who have been largely unimpressed with the plans presented to them this year. The original FY 2021 budget request was called “dead on arrival” after it contained the smallest shipbuilding budget in years. The Battle Force 2045 and its accompanying long-range shipbuilding plan was panned for the opposite reason, for being out of touch with budget realities and calling for too quick a naval buildup.

Report on Navy Large Unmanned Surface and Undersea Vehicles

The following is the Dec. 23, 2020 Congressional Research Service Report, Navy Large Unmanned Surface and Undersea Vehicles: Background and Issues for Congress. From the report The Navy in FY2021 and beyond wants to develop and procure three types of large unmanned vehicles (UVs). These large UVs are called Large Unmanned Surface Vehicles (LUSVs), Medium […]

The following is the Dec. 23, 2020 Congressional Research Service Report, Navy Large Unmanned Surface and Undersea Vehicles: Background and Issues for Congress.

From the report

The Navy in FY2021 and beyond wants to develop and procure three types of large unmanned vehicles (UVs). These large UVs are called Large Unmanned Surface Vehicles (LUSVs), Medium Unmanned Surface Vehicles (MUSVs), and Extra-Large Unmanned Undersea Vehicles (XLUUVs). The Navy is requesting $579.9 million in FY2021 research and development funding for these large UVs and their enabling technologies.

The Navy wants to acquire these large UVs as part of an effort to shift the Navy to a more distributed fleet architecture. Compared to the current fleet architecture, this more distributed architecture is to include proportionately fewer large surface combatants (i.e., cruisers and destroyers), proportionately more small surface combatants (i.e., frigates and Littoral Combat Ships), and the addition of significant numbers of large UVs.

The Navy wants to employ accelerated acquisition strategies for procuring these large UVs, so as to get them into service more quickly. The Navy’s desire to employ these accelerated acquisition strategies can be viewed as an expression of the urgency that the Navy attaches to fielding large UVs for meeting future military challenges from countries such as China.

The Navy envisions LUSVs as being 200 feet to 300 feet in length and having full load displacements of 1,000 tons to 2,000 tons. The Navy wants LUSVs to be low-cost, high-endurance, reconfigurable ships based on commercial ship designs, with ample capacity for carrying various modular payloads—particularly anti-surface warfare (ASuW) and strike payloads, meaning principally anti-ship and land-attack missiles. Although referred to as UVs, LUSVs might be more accurately described as optionally or lightly manned ships, because they might sometimes have a few onboard crew members, particularly in the nearer term as the Navy works out LUSV enabling technologies and operational concepts. In marking up the Navy’s proposed FY2020 budget, some of the congressional defense committees expressed concerns over whether the Navy’s accelerated acquisition strategies provided enough time to adequately develop concepts of operations and key technologies for these large UVs, particularly the LUSV. In response, the Navy’s FY2021 budget submission proposes to modify the acquisition strategy for the LUSV program so as to provide more time for developing operational concepts and key technologies before entering into serial production of deployable units. Under the Navy’s proposed modified LUSV acquisition strategy, the Navy is proposing to use research and development funding to acquire two additional prototypes in FY2021 and one more additional prototype in FY2022 before shifting in FY2023 to the use of procurement funding for the procurement of deployable LUSVs at annual procurement rates in FY2023-FY2025 of 2-2-3.

The Navy defines MUSVs as being 45 feet to 190 feet long, with displacements of roughly 500 tons. The Navy wants MUSVs, like LUSVs, to be low-cost, high-endurance, reconfigurable ships that can accommodate various payloads. Initial payloads for MUSVs are to be intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) payloads and electronic warfare (EW) systems. The Navy is pursuing the MUSV program as a rapid prototyping effort under what is known as Section 804 acquisition authority. The first MUSV prototype was funded in FY2019 and the Navy wants fund the second prototype in FY2023. On July 13, 2020, the Navy announced that it had awarded “a $34,999,948 contract to L3 Technologies, Inc. for the development of a single Medium Unmanned Surface Vehicle (MUSV) prototype, with options to procure up to eight additional MUSVs.”

The first five XLUUVs were funded in FY2019; they are being built by Boeing. The Navy wants procure additional XLUUVs at a rate of two per year starting in FY2023. The Navy’s FY2021 budget submission does not include funding for the procurement of additional XLUUVs in FY2021 or FY2022.

The Navy’s large UV programs pose a number of oversight issues for Congress, including issues relating to the analytical basis for the more distributed fleet architecture; the Navy’s accelerated acquisition strategies for these programs; technical, schedule, and cost risk in the programs; the proposed annual procurement rates for the programs; the industrial base implications of the programs; potential implications for miscalculation or escalation at sea; the personnel implications of the programs; and whether the Navy has accurately priced the work it is proposing to do in FY2021 on the programs.

Download the document here.

USS John S. McCain Conducts Second FONOp This Week, This Time Off Vietnamese Islands

Guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain (DDG-56) conducted its second freedom of navigation operation this week, this time challenging excessive maritime claims by Vietnam. McCain “asserted navigational rights and freedoms near Vietnam in the vicinity of the Con Dao Islands in the South China Sea” in a Dec. 24 operation, U.S. 7th Fleet announced. “The […]

The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain (DDG 56) transits through South China Sea while conducting routine underway operations on Dec. 22, 2020. McCain is forward-deployed to the U.S. 7th Fleet area of operations in support of security and stability in the Indo-Pacific region. US Navy photo.

Guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain (DDG-56) conducted its second freedom of navigation operation this week, this time challenging excessive maritime claims by Vietnam. McCain “asserted navigational rights and freedoms near Vietnam in the vicinity of the Con Dao Islands in the South China Sea” in a Dec. 24 operation, U.S. 7th Fleet announced. “The ship conducted normal operations within Vietnam’s claimed territorial seas to challenge excessive maritime claims and preserve access and navigational freedoms consistent with international law.” On Dec. 22, McCain conducted a similar operation near the Spratly Islands, which China, Taiwan and Vietnam all claim. And on Dec. 21, another Japan-based U.S. destroyer, USS Mustin (DDG-89), conducted a Taiwan Strait transit to counter China’s claims to the strait. “U.S. forces operate in the Indo-Pacific region on a daily basis, as they have for more than a century. They routinely operate in close coordination with like-minded allies and partners who share our commitment to uphold a free and open international order that promotes security and prosperity. All of our operations are designed in accordance with international law and demonstrate that the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows– regardless of the location of excessive maritime claims and regardless of current events,” reads the 7th Fleet statement. The U.S. has long conducted these freedom of navigation operations, or FONOps, in the South China Sea, though the Defense Department has over recent years taken different approaches to talking about them publicly based on the administration’s position on China and other political factors. This year, though, the Pentagon has been more forthright about discussing the many FONOps happening in the region, which not only push back against China and, on some occasions, Russia, but also against partners like Vietnam. The following is the full statement from U.S. 7th Fleet: SOUTH CHINA SEA – On December 24, USS John S. McCain (DDG 56) asserted navigational rights and freedoms near Vietnam in the vicinity of the Con Dao Islands in the South China Sea. The ship conducted normal operations within Vietnam’s claimed territorial seas to challenge excessive maritime claims and preserve access and navigational freedoms consistent with international law. U.S. forces operate in the Indo-Pacific region on a daily basis, as they have for more than a century. They routinely operate in close coordination with like-minded allies and partners who share our commitment to uphold a free and open international order that promotes security and prosperity. All of our operations are designed in accordance with international law and demonstrate that the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows– regardless of the location of excessive maritime claims and regardless of current events. The international law of sea as reflected in the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention provides for the certain rights and freedoms and other lawful uses of the sea to all nations. The United States upholds these rights and freedoms as a matter of principle to preserve the freedom of the seas that is critical to global security, stability, and prosperity. As long as some countries continue to assert maritime claims that are consistent with international law as reflected in the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention and that purport to restrict unlawfully the rights and freedoms enjoyed by all states, the United States will continue to defend the rights and freedoms of the sea guaranteed to all.

Navy Releases Final RFP for Large Displacement Unmanned Underwater Vehicle Program

The Navy released the final request for proposals (RFP) for its Snakehead Large Displacement Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (LDUUV) Phase 2 program, the largest of its submarine-launched unmanned systems. The service is already in fabrication on its Phase 1 LDUUV, which will deliver next year to begin test and evaluation activities. The vehicles delivered under this […]

 

A surrogate Large Displacement Unmanned Undersea Vehicle (LDUUV) is submerged in the water in preparation for a test to demonstrate the capability of the Navy’s Common Control System (CCS) at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center Keyport in Puget Sound, Wash. in December 2015. US Navy Photo.

The Navy released the final request for proposals (RFP) for its Snakehead Large Displacement Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (LDUUV) Phase 2 program, the largest of its submarine-launched unmanned systems.

The service is already in fabrication on its Phase 1 LDUUV, which will deliver next year to begin test and evaluation activities. The vehicles delivered under this Phase 2 LDUUV contract will be the first ones used operationally.

The RFP covers the design, development, and fabrication of two prototype vehicles, which will be competitively awarded to a single vendor, according to a news release from Naval Sea Systems Command. Proposals are expected early in 2021, and an award would be made by the fall.

“Snakehead is a long-endurance, multi-mission UUV, deployed from submarine large ocean interfaces, with the capability to deploy reconfigurable payloads. The LDUUV will provide guidance and control, navigation, autonomy, situational awareness, core communications, power distribution, energy and power, propulsion and maneuvering, other hotel functionality, and sensors in support of the Intelligence Preparation of the Operational Environment (IPOE) mission,” reads a description of the program that accompanies the RFP. Other missions and payloads could be added later, but IPOE will be the initial focus of the LDUUV vehicles.

The LDUUV Phase 2 vehicle will integrate with submarines outfitted with the Modernized Dry Dock Shelter (DDS) and the Payload Handling System (PHS). The Navy has previously discussed the idea of also launching them from select surface ships.

The Navy had previously outlined a timeline for the Snakehead LDUUV that would have put the Phase 1 prototype in the water for testing in 2019, rather than 2021. Though the Navy is running behind that previous schedule, it is taking steps now to smooth its path to fielding and beginning to operate the LDUUVs. USNI News previously reported that UUV Squadron One (UUVRON-1) has been working with two prototypes from the Penn State Applied Research Lab that are a representative size of the LDUUVs, allowing the UUVRON to work out the launch and recovery procedures even while Phase 1 is still in fabrication. By the time the Phase 2 prototypes deliver following this competition, UUVRON will be ready to accept and begin using the vehicles.

NAVSEA hosted a virtual industry day on LDUUV on June 16 and 17, according to the news release. Representatives from more than 50 companies took part via teleconference, and feedback from the industry day was incorporated in a draft RFP that was issued on Oct. 29. Additional industry feedback was considered to inform the final RFP.

Top Stories 2020: International Naval Acquisition

This post is part of a series of stories looking back at the top naval news from 2020. China, Russia and the U.S. all announced sweeping expansions of their naval capacity in 2020 as the three largest world fleets vie for high seas influence in a declared era of great power competition. The new tone for […]

HMS Queen Elizabeth R08 arriving back in Portsmouth July 2, 2020 after a period at sea conducting Operational Sea Training. UK Royal Navy Photo

This post is part of a series of stories looking back at the top naval news from 2020.

China, Russia and the U.S. all announced sweeping expansions of their naval capacity in 2020 as the three largest world fleets vie for high seas influence in a declared era of great power competition. The new tone for naval forces is helping U.S. allies achieve more lethal navies and expanded capabilities.

Everyone Wants an Aircraft Carrier

Chinese carrier Shandong. PLA Photo

While a debate of the future aircraft carrier force raged in the U.S., American allies and adversaries moved to purchase their own naval aviation capability.

In China, the People’s Liberation Army Navy made progress on its third aircraft carrier that would be a domestic design featuring modern catapults and arresting gear. The Type 003 (occasionally referred to in the West as the Type 002) is a departure from the Soviet-style carriers currently in the PLAN’s inventory.

“This design will enable it to support additional fighter aircraft, fixed-wing early-warning aircraft, and more rapid flight operations and thus extend the reach and effectiveness of its carrier-based strike aircraft. [China’s] second domestically built carrier is projected to be operational by 2024, with additional carriers to follow,” the Pentagon’s annual report to Congress on Chinese military capabilities.

At least one senior U.S. official said China’s enthusiasm for the program makes a case for the efficacy of the carrier platform.

“To me that makes all the sense, they’re a maritime power and they understand the great value that comes from carrier aviation and how that can shape the international environment. It’s taken us over 100 years to get that right,” Adm. Chris Grady, commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Command, said during the American Society of Naval Engineers 2020 Fleet Maintenance Modernization Symposium in September.
“Lot of blood, lot of loss of life, a lot of sweat and tears to make naval aviation work. We’ve got a huge lead and one that will continue to expand into the future. Go ahead and build that big ship, but to build the ecosystem that is naval aviation that brings that ship to life – that’s going to take a lot of hard work and time.”

Concept image of the LPX-II Lighting Carrier from South Korea. Republic of Korea Navy Image

South Korea is developing capacity to allow their big-deck ships to launch fixed-wing fighters. Following Japan’s conversion of its two Izumo-class helicopter destroyers to field F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters, the Republic of Korea Navy is building a light carrier to field F-35Bs. The LPX-II carrier will be dedicated to naval aviation and not be modeled after U.S. and Japanese big deck amphibs, USNI News and Naval News reported in August.

Artist’s impression of PANG aircraft carrier.

France kicked off its own carrier program with an announcement from President Emmanuel Macron in early December. The PANG (Porte Avion Nouvelle Generation, or next-generation aircraft carrier) program is set to produce a replacement for the existing FS Charles de Gaulle (R91) aircraft carrier around 2038. Reuters reported the carrier could cost up to $6 billion.

The U.K. Royal Navy continued the development of its two-ship Queen Elizabeth-class carrier program with a carrier strike group exercise featuring lead ship HMS Queen Elizabeth (R08). HMS Prince of Wales (R09) was commissioned in late 2019 and has been working through post-delivery trials. The ship is currently undergoing repairs after major flooding in October. In November, the U.K. proposed a massive $32-billion military expansion that includes a larger Royal Navy fleet.

China’s Rapid Naval Expansion

Chinese sailors. Xinhua Photo

China’s rapid expansion of the People’s Liberation Army Navy drew major concern from the Pentagon in 2020.

“The PRC has the largest navy in the world, with an overall battle force of approximately 350 ships and submarines including over 130 major surface combatants. In comparison, the U.S. Navy’s battle force is approximately 293 ships as of early 2020. China is the top ship-producing nation in the world by tonnage and is increasing its shipbuilding capacity and capability for all naval classes,” reads the Pentagon’s annual China military power report.

China is expanding its fleet in every area.

“It’s important to highlight the Chinese shipbuilding advantages in terms of its size of the fleet, is both in context of the broader modernization ambitions, virtual class military. This is a long-term challenge, and it’s not only demarcated by a single variable, which would be total number of vessels, tonnage capacity, capabilities, location, posture, activities, and then other aspects,” Chad Sbragia, deputy assistant secretary of defense for China, said in September.

In addition to aircraft carriers, the PLAN kept up a high rate of construction throughout 2020.

The report highlighted the launch of almost two dozen Luyang III guided-missile destroyers, the commissioning of the 30th Jiangkai II-class guided-missile frigate, the construction of six Renhai guided-missile cruisers and the entrance more than 40 Jiangdao corvettes into the PLAN fleet.

The lead Chinese Type-075 preparing for sea trials. Photo via Weibo

China is also expanding its amphibious fleet, marked by the start of sea trials for the Type-075 big-deck amphibious warship. The Congressional Research Service tied the development of the Type-075 and the Type-071 amphibious warship to Beijing’s desire to reunite with Taiwan.

“The Type 075 would be of value for conducting amphibious landings in Taiwan-related conflict scenarios, some observers believe that China is building such ships as much for their value in conducting other operations, such as operations for asserting and defending China’s claims in the South and East China Seas, humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HA/DR) operations, maritime security operations (such as antipiracy operations), and noncombatant evacuation operations (NEOs),” the report reads.

China is also looking to expand its submarine force.

“The PLAN currently operates four nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) with two additional hulls fitting out, six nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs), and 50 diesel-powered attack submarines (SSs). The PLAN will likely maintain between 65 and 70 submarines through the 2020s, replacing older units with more capable units on a near one-to-one basis,” reads the report.

Many of the new platforms are fielding new anti-ship weapons and land-attack cruise missiles.

HI Sutton Image, used with permission

China also developed its own unmanned surface vehicle that bears a resemblance to the U.S. Navy’s Sea Hunter program.

Russia’s Less Rapid Naval Expansion

K-560 Severodvinsk in 2018. Russian MoD Photo

Russia has seen a more modest uptick in naval construction in 2020.

In July, Russian Navy head Adm. Nikolai Yevmenov promised the Russian Navy would commission 40 ships into service – a mix of corvettes, mine countermeasures ships, ballistic missile submarines and a blend of nuclear and diesel-electric attack boats.

Among the most important shipbuilding efforts for the Russian Navy is the Yasen-class nuclear attack boat program.

The Russians have been slow to deliver the highly capable attack boats with only one, Severodvinsk, currently in service. Second-in-class Kazan is close to commissioning, successfully test firing both land-attack and anti-ship missiles in a training range near the Northern Fleet’s White Sea naval base, reported Naval News. The third ship in the class is also set to commission soon.

The effectiveness of the Yasen boats have, in part, driven the U.S. to pay more attention to anti-submarine warfare efforts in the Atlantic.

Jane’s reported that the Russians had laid the keel for two more Yasen attack boats, bringing the total under construction to eight.

The Russian Navy is moving to expand its fleet in the Pacific, announcing an increase of 15 ships in its Pacific Fleet in 2020 in the state-controlled Tass wire service.

Outlook 2021: Steady trans-Atlantic trade sees demand rebound

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Outlook 2021: Asia–Europe spot strength heralds sharp rise in contract rates

[caption caption="Asia–Europe container volumes declined for nine straight months before turning positive in August, September, and October. Photo credit: Shutterstock.com."][/caption]This story appears in the print edition of the Jan. 4, 2021,…

[caption caption="Asia–Europe container volumes declined for nine straight months before turning positive in August, September, and October. Photo credit: Shutterstock.com."][/caption]This story appears in the print edition of the Jan. 4, 2021, Journal of Commerce Annual Review and Outlook.Asia–Europe shippers reaching the end of their annual contracts should prepare their budgets...

Outlook 2021: Chassis providers eye equipment investments, regulatory cases

[caption caption="TRAC Intermodal, DCLI, and Flexi-Van Leasing, the three largest US chassis providers, all plan to add both new and refurbished units to their equipment fleets in 2021. Photo credit: DCLI."][/caption]This story appears in the p…

[caption caption="TRAC Intermodal, DCLI, and Flexi-Van Leasing, the three largest US chassis providers, all plan to add both new and refurbished units to their equipment fleets in 2021. Photo credit: DCLI."][/caption]This story appears in the print edition of the Jan. 4, 2021, Journal of Commerce Annual Review and Outlook.Two of...