Stretching Navy Budgets Too Far?

The general inactivity of the USS Wasp is worrying if the American Navy will have to accommodate budget crunches soon.

In an era where austerity measures and budget stretching has seen the United States Navy send vessels on prolonged and increasingly wearing deployments, it is reported that one major ship seems to have been left behind. Navy spokesmen this week responded to queries about the status of the USS Wasp, a 41,000 ton big deck amphibious assault ship that hasn’t been deployed for a major cruise in almost eight years, amid concerns about the operational condition of the vessel’s combat system.

The ship, which is currently being used as a testbed for the technologies and operations systems to be deployed fleetwide with the rollout of the vertical takeoff and landing version of the Joint Strike Fighter, has not been used to carry a Marine Expeditionary Unit as part of an Amphibious Ready Group since 2004. All other big deck amphibious ships in the Navy have acted in that role several times throughout the same period, with the deployment schedule of most topping eight months for each cruise. In contrast, the Wasp‘s cruises have not lasted for more than four months in years.

The Wasp, one of the Navy’s largest and most viable noncarrier combat surface ships, certainly hasn’t been idle for most of the past decade. The vessel has been involved in numerous humanitarian operations, running supplies and aid to Lebanon and Nicaragua between 2004 and 2007, and it was involved in shipping marine units and V-22 Osprey craft to Iraq during 2007. It has also taken part in numerous Navy shows and civilian displays and had a role in this past winter’s amphibious exercises off of the American East Coast.

However, the “safe” nature of these mission profiles has prompted confusion about the status of the ship and the viability of its combat systems. After all, the Wasp‘s deployments haven’t just been short. They have almost never in eight years put the ship in a position where it may have had to call on its combat abilities.

Navy and Department of Defense officials deny that there is anything wrong with the weapons systems of the ship, stating that it is capable of being deployed to the operational roster but is serving a more important purpose as the outfitted testing grounds for the F-35B, a plane that will be used by the Navy and be depended upon by the Marine Corps.

None of the Navy’s vessels are fully outfitted to support the fighter as of yet and it can certainly be said that the transfer of the extra weapons storage areas and electrical systems housed by the Wasp to other ships could be inconveniently expensive.

But this explanation does not, as many analysts point out, account for the entirety of the time period in which the Wasp has been inactive, as the JSF only entered testing a year ago. And it is not as if the Navy can claim diminished need for amphibious assets during deployments as a reason for the ship’s short duration cruises. The sister ship of the Wasp, the USS Kearsage, has seen one deployment after another, with one eight month cruise in 2011 seeing extended combat operations to support the NATO campaign in Libya.

The question of why the Wasp isn’t being used strikes at the very heart of the debates and concerns about the future of the US Navy.

With new assets being produced to operate alongside existing ones and budgets remaining tight in years to come, the Pentagon needs to make sure it spends its money right. Half measures and prolonging the life of equipment that isn’t being used risks skewing the calculations of strategic planners and diverting funds from other important projects. Imprecise and poorly planned expenditure could lead to a hollow force for the United States, one that is strong on paper but lacking the upkeep and focused capabilities that will make the country effective in meeting tomorrow’s geostrategic challenges.

In the end, the Wasp‘s job testing the JSF is undoubtedly important to the future of both the Navy’s and Marine Corps’ combat airpower projection capabilities. Indeed, given the level of investment in the troubled fighter jet, it may be one of the most important development tasks currently being undertaken by the armed forces.

However, the seven year period of general inactivity prior to the start of testing is worrying. Sidelining important assets to secondary mission profiles seems wasteful and detracts from efficient budgeting processes.

Additionally, even if the ship does not have problems with its combat systems and was simply being made available for important testing duties long in advance, there has still been a disconnect in the rhetoric of the Navy and the perceived operational status of the fleet.

If the Pentagon wants to avoid any possibility of ending up with hollow forces or hollow assets, it is clear that the case of the Wasp is one that the Navy should be trying hard not to emulate in years to come.