16 November 2016
There could be a lot more ships in the Navy’s future, though it remains unclear where the money will come from and exactly how those ships might be used.
President-elect Donald Trump pledged to boost the fleet to 350 ships, a proposal advocated by an outgoing Virginia congressman reportedly being considered as the next Navy secretary.
“My plan will build the 350 ship Navy we need,” Trump said in an Oct. 21 speech, according to his campaign website. “This will be the largest effort at rebuilding our military since Ronald Reagan, and it will require a truly national effort.”
The speech provided no additional details. However, U.S. Naval Institute News reported that a source close to Trump attributed the idea to Rep. Randy Forbes, whose southeast Virginia district is part of the Navy’s East Coast hub.
The Navy’s 272-ship deployable fleet is operating under a 30-year shipbuilding plan that would bring it up to 308 ships.
However, just getting the service up to 308 would require $4.5 billion more in annual shipbuilding spending than planned, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
Getting to 350 would cost about $4 billion more annually on top of that, according to a Nov. 9 Congressional Research Service report. That doesn’t include several billion dollars more in maintenance, staffing, weapons acquisition and long-term costs.
The large increase in shipbuilding would be paralleled by spending increases in other areas, if Congress agrees to Trump’s campaign pledges.
Trump called for increasing the active-duty Army to 60,000 soldiers and the Marines by 20,000 servicemembers, Trump supporter Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., told Defense News last month.
To spend more on shipbuilding and personnel, Congress would likely have to repeal or alter a law that subjects spending above budget caps to across-the-board cuts known as sequestration.
“Well, it would be a need for a spending increase, there is just no doubt about it,” Sessions said. “And it is painful for me as a budget person to acknowledge that we can’t stay at a sequester-like level. We are just not going to be able to do that.”
Makeup of the fleet
There are several notional plans for what a 350-ship plan would look like, most of which converge in key areas.
As Cold War-era submarines retire, the fast-attack fleet is projected to decrease 25 percent by 2029. Multiple 350-ship plans call for 12 additional fast-attack submarines, which cost about $2 billion each.
The Navy is dependent on two shipyards to build its submarines. Those same contractors will also likely be working on 12 replacements for the nuclear ballistic-missile sub fleet, which begins retiring in 2027.
“Going from building two Virginia Class submarines per year to four would not be as simple as adding more money to the ship construction account,” Jerry Hendrix, senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, wrote this month in support of the 350-ship Navy. “Welders certified to work on nuclear-powered vessels take a year or more to train and certify, and the companies involved cannot cut corners for fear of damaging their reputations and stock prices.”
A 350-ship plan could build 16 more ships in the cruiser/destroyer classes, which would more than double current building plans.
The Navy previously tried to retire some of its older, Ticonderoga-class missile cruisers but met opposition in the House’s Seapower subcommittee, which was chaired by Forbes.
“This administration has tried to take out 11 of our cruisers,” Forbes said last month, while talking along with Sessions to Defense News. “You have to have those multiple cruisers or destroyers to do that 360-degree flight. It makes good sense to us to continue to modernize our cruisers.”
A future frigate planned as a heavier version of the littoral combat ship could also see greater procurement, according to some scenarios.
In all, a Congressional Research Service theoretical 350-ship plan estimates that the Navy would need 45-58 more ships built on top of the 41 it is planning to have built.
Using the ships
If Congress and the administration can free up funding and the industrial base can build them all, the question remains: what will the additional ships be doing?
The easiest part of that answer is reducing stress on the available ships and their crews.
The Navy had 58 percent of its 272 ships underway as of Nov. 10. The rest are in maintenance or preparing for a deployment.
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, combined with commitments in Asia and other priorities, have lengthened ship deployments to eight to 11 months in multiple cases. This in turn has stretched the Navy’s maintenance budget and kept families apart far longer than the Navy wants.
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson has stated a goal of reducing average deployments to seven months by the end of this year.
The more difficult part to foresee is what U.S. security needs will be for the next few decades. For now, the Navy remains far ahead of any other nation’s navy on a global scale.
However, most potential adversaries only need to win a conflict regionally. Asia-Pacific analysts point to China’s growing navy and assertive territorial claims in conflict with U.S. allies.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its naval posturing have raised concerns, though Trump’s overtures toward Moscow may change the strategic balance in the shorter term.
Meanwhile, stationing more ships in Italy or Greece, should those countries allow it, could give the U.S. a larger base of operations for Middle East contingencies.
The Congressional Research Service report on bigger fleets suggested that “a key potential reason for increasing the planned size of the Navy … would be to re-establish a larger U.S. Navy forward-deployed presence in the European theater, and particularly the Mediterranean.”
If Forbes’ point of view gains sway with Trump, the argument may simply come down to letting the world know that the U.S. isn’t going anywhere.
“Presence, the importance of being there, often with very basic, low-end ships that are backed up by the threat of high-end ships, is often enough to uphold American interests,” he said.