Unmanned ships to pad the Navy’s fleet?; F-35’s cost to rise; Romania wants Patriots, and a lot more.

When people talk about President Trump’s plans for a bigger military, the 355-ship Navy is often the first thing they cite. Shipbuilders say they’re ready and lobbying groups have flooded email inboxes with cries for more, more, more.

The man who would oversee the effort to grow the fleet is Richard Spencer, Trump’s nominee for Navy secretary. At his Senate confirmation hearing this week, Spencer hinted that at least some of those new warships might not carry human sailors.

“[P]eople have asked, ‘What do you think of the 355-ship Navy?’ And I said: It is a great goal to have. I can’t tell you what the construct of that would be, sitting here today, because I think unmanned — both below the water, on the water and in the air — is an area we’re just beginning to chip away at. And that’s going to provide some great yield for us,” Spencer told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Here’s another thing: all of those new ships might not be new.

“If we take the full gamut of what’s available to us to tackle the 355-ship goal, we should be thinking outside the box,” Spencer said. “We should be thinking, possibly, bringing things out of the ready reserve. [Perhaps some recently decommissioned FFG-7 class frigates, CNO Adm. John Richardson said in June.] We should be looking at ways to construct better, faster, cheaper.”

Capital Alpha analyst Byron Callan notes that a mix of crewed and unmanned ships “sync up” with firms’ acquisitions over the past year. We’ve been keeping an eye on related developments such as the new teaming agreement between Huntington Ingalls and Boeing, or L3 Technologies’ April acquisition of underwater drone maker OceanServer.

Callan notes that Spencer’s comments “may suggest a different fleet mix than just 355 ships and submarines.”

Spencer also mentioned a new frigate, which the Navy this week took some steps toward defining. The request for information paints a picture of a ship with SM-2 and/or Evolved Sea Sparrow missiles and an advanced radar.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., who has pounded away on the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ships for their relatively light armament and other perceived flaws, said he is “cautiously optimistic” about the new frigate.

“This new frigate must be more capable than the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program, with minor modifications,” McCain said. “For example, the new frigate’s ability to perform local area air defense for convoys of ships would provide a necessary and clear capability improvement over the LCS program.”

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Wait. Why Did the F-35 Price Tag Go Up?

We’ve spent a lot of time tracking the cost of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, whose per-plane price tag has been declining in recent years. But now Bloomberg reports that the Pentagon’s latest estimates have the program’s total cost on the rise again: up from $379 billion to $406.5 billion. Why?

Pentagon officials say it’s largely because the Air Force is reducing its maximum annual purchases from 80 jets to 60 jets, and that pushes up the per-plane cost.

Here’s why it matters (or doesn’t). In the court of public opinion, increasing costs never look good, regardless of the reason. But surely it would be worse if the cost were going up because the plane needed a fundamental design change. Much of that money is to be spent in the coming decades, meaning it hasn’t been spent yet. Pentagon budget documents try to project out five years. Projecting a decade or more is even harder, and who knows what the security environment will look like then? Perhaps this latest estimate will be incentive to help the Air Force return its F-35 buy to that 80-jet threshold.

Lockheed Gets Another F-35 Contract

Back to the near term. The final price of the next batch of F-35s has not been settled, but the Pentagon has said it would give Lockheed at least $4.5 billion. The contract could jump $1.1 billion higher to $5.6 billion, but a spokesman for the F-35 program said “we are confident” the price of the individual jets would still be less than the price of the previous order.

And when Lockheed reports its 2017 second-quarter earnings, it’s safe to say its executives will talk about these two developments.

Back to that Pentagon Program Cost Report

Bloomberg’s F-35 story is based on the Pentagon’s 2017 Selected Acquisition Report, which was recently sent to Congress but not publicly released. That’s unusual; it’s been at least four years since the annual report was not released to lawmakers and the public simultaneously. Generally, the Pentagon makes two or three senior officials available to speak about the SAR on background to reporters. Not this year. Emails and phone calls to spokesman for the Pentagon’s acquisition office, which oversees the selected acquisition reports, were not returned.

Lots of Missile Defense Happenings

First, the State Department approved a $3.9 billion sale of Patriot missile interceptors to Romania. It includes seven radars and control stations, 28 launchers, 58 GEM-T interceptors and 168 PAC-3 interceptors.

Next, a THAAD interceptor hit a mock intermediate-range ballistic missile in a Pacific test, according to the Missile Defense Agency: “A THAAD weapon system located…in Kodiak, Alaska, detected, tracked and intercepted the target. Preliminary indications are that planned flight test objectives were achieved and the threat-representative, intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) target was successfully intercepted by the THAAD weapon system.” That makes THAAD 14 for 14 in intercept tests, according to MDA.

“The successful demonstration of THAAD against an IRBM-range missile threat bolsters the country’s defensive capability against developing missile threats in North Korea and other countries around the globe and contributes to the broader strategic deterrence architecture,” MDA said in a statement.

U.K. Could Get Oshkosh Trucks

State also cleared the sale of 2,747 Joint Light Tactical Vehicles — the U.S. Army’s Humvee replacement — to Britain. “The proposed sale will help improve the UK’s Light Tactical Vehicle Fleet and enhance its ability to meet current and future threats,” the Pentagon said in a statement.

Other deals approved by State this week:

  • 120-millimeter tank ammunition for Australia, valued at $50 million
  • F/A-18 Super Hornet upgrades for Australia, $101.4 million
  • 70 Hellfire missiles for The Netherlands, $34 million.
  • Missile warning systems for Netherlands Apache helicopters, $58.2 million.

Big Military Air Show this Weekend in England

This weekend is the Royal International Air Tattoo, a British air show that’s all about high-performance jets showing off. The U.S. Air Force will have a large presence, per usual, and a first: all three American bombers, the B-1B, B-2, and B-52, will be there at once. Also on display or flying: the F-22 Raptor, C-130 Hercules, KC-135 Stratotanker, C-21, U-2 Dragon Lady, CV-22 Osprey, MC-130J Commando II, F-15 Eagle, F-15E Strike Eagle, F-16 Fighting Falcon and HH-60G Pave Hawk. Oh, and the Thunderbirds will be there too. The Navy is sending a P-8 submarine hunter as well.

Making Moves

Two Obama-era political appointees at the Pentagon are running for the U.S. House. Elissa Slotkin, former acting assistant Defense Secretary for international security affairs, announced that she is running in Michigan’s 8th District; while Dan Feehan, former principal deputy assistant Defense Secretary for readiness, announced he is running to represent Minnesota’s 1st District.

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