Austin Wright, Politico
6 May 2016
The Navy's new 30-year shipbuilding plan projects a fleet of 292 ships in 2046 - a fleet that is short of the service's 308-ship goal, is down from the 305 ships projected last year and raises questions about the Obama administration's vision of a larger Navy.
The projected 292 ships would be a 20-ship increase from today's battle-force fleet of 272. But the shipbuilding plan - obtained by POLITICO ahead of its planned delivery to Congress in the next few days - acknowledges that getting to that number would require "funding that exceeds levels the Navy has historically committed to new ship construction."
The size of the Navy has been an issue on the presidential campaign trail, both in 2012 - when President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney famously tangled over the issue during a debate - and in the current cycle, with several of the now-vanquished Republican contenders calling for big shipbuilding boosts.
This latest annual shipbuilding plan shows the impact of Defense Secretary Ash Carter's decision in December to order the Navy to cut its total planned purchases of Littoral Combat Ships from 52 to 40, saying the Navy was too focused on ship quantity and should instead invest more in ship lethality.
Carter has butted heads over the issue with Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, who has defended the service's emphasis on quantity as key to providing "presence."
"That unrivaled advantage, that presence - on, above and beneath the seas - reassures our allies and deters our adversaries," Mabus said in a speech earlier this year, blasting politicians who've described the Navy as shrinking. "In the seven years following 2009, we will have contracted 84 ships, more than the last three Navy secretaries combined."
Under the new shipbuilding plan, the Navy would not shrink - as a number of prominent Republicans have charged - but it also wouldn't grow as much as projected just a year ago.
The plan projects the Navy getting to 300 battle-force ships in fiscal 2019 and peaking at 313 ships in fiscal 2025, achieving a milestone of reaching a 300-ship force. But the size of the fleet would then begin dropping, reaching 292 ships by 2046, the result of aging ships being decommissioned and fewer LCSs than previously envisioned to replace them.
Under last year's plan, the Navy would have peaked at 321 ships in fiscal 2028 and then declined to 305 ships in 2045.
The report, however, notes the Navy faces a number of challenges getting to even the reduced total, including how to pay for a new fleet of Ohio-class replacement ballistic missile submarines. The service's answer: more money.
The Navy "contends that the only way to effectively overcome these challenges while supporting the defense strategy is with increases in [Navy] topline funding," the report says.
Navy advocates in Congress have been pressing for a military-wide fund, separate from the Navy's normal shipbuilding account, to pay for the new ballistic-missiles submarines - a plan opposed by some senior appropriators because it would effectively force the Army and the Air Force to subsidize a shipbuilding program.
Ultimately, according to the report, the Navy will be able to carry out all its highest-priority missions even with the reduced number of ships. The Navy, the report says, "can and will achieve the requisite mix of ships providing this shipbuilding plan continues to receive stable and sufficient funding over the long haul."
A Navy official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said long-term shipbuilding projections should
be taken with a grain of salt given all the things that could change between now and 2046.
"Most 30-year shipbuilding plans are not worth much beyond three to five years," the official said, explaining that the Navy was doing a new force structure assessment this year to update the previous one from 2014. And that could have a big impact on its long-term shipbuilding goals.
Also, the official noted, a new presidential administration next year could decide it wants to change the current shipbuilding trajectory.