The Pentagon’s Highly Questionable Proposals for a Navy With Over 500 Ships

 In Sea, Forces & Capabilities

Real-world factors are driving proposals for a huge expansion of the Navy’s fleet, but there are major hurdles on the horizon.


The U.S. Navy’s forth­com­ing force struc­ture review may call for a fleet with up to 534 ships and sub­marines, includ­ing var­i­ous kinds of unmanned vessels. The is far bigger than the exist­ing Congressionally-man­dat­ed goal of a 355-ship fleet, which has long proven to be a struggle for the ser­vice to achieve. Plans for an even larger force could run into sig­nif­i­cant bud­getary, recruit­ing, sus­tain­ment, and other hur­dles.  

Defense News
got the scoop on the expand­ed fleet con­cepts after obtain­ing draft copies of naval force struc­ture stud­ies that the Pentagon’s Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) and the Hudson Institute think tank pro­duced for the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Those reports date back to April 2020 and were meant to present a pro­posed ideal fleet com­po­si­tion and plans for obtain­ing it by 2045. The Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was also set to pro­duce a study, the details of which remain unknown.

Those stud­ies have since been eval­u­at­ed, includ­ing through sim­u­lat­ed wargames, and have been incor­po­rat­ed, at least in some part, into the Navy’s Future Naval Force Study, accord­ing to Defense News. This new force struc­ture plan was orig­i­nal­ly expect­ed to be com­plet­ed some­time last year, but has been repeat­ed­ly pushed back. At present, the plan is to use this final study to inform the next ship­build­ing plan, which will accom­pa­ny the ser­vice’s budget request for the 2022 Fiscal Year, a public ver­sion of which should come out some­time between February and March 2021.

“The Future Naval Force Study is a col­lab­o­ra­tive OSD, Joint Staff and Department of the Navy effort to assess future naval force struc­ture options and inform future naval force struc­ture deci­sions and the 30-year ship­build­ing plan,” Navy Lieutenant Tim Pietrack, a spokesper­son for the ser­vice, told Defense News. “Although COVID-19 has delayed some por­tions of the study, the effort remains on track to be com­plete in late 2020 and pro­vide ana­lyt­ic insights in time to inform Program Budget Review [FY] 22.”

Changes to carrier, other surface vessel, and submarine fleets

The pro­posed fleets from both CAPE and Hudson have sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ences com­pared to the Navy’s exist­ing struc­ture, which cur­rent­ly has around 290 ships and is expect­ed to grow to 301 ships by the end of this year. Both of the plans notably rec­om­mend­ed cut­ting the total number of super­car­ri­ers to nine from the service's current total of 11, which includes the 10 Nimitz class carriers and the first-in-class USS Gerald R. Ford.

The first-in-class USS Gerald R. Ford, in front, sails with the Nimitz class Harry S. Truman.

It is also worth noting that, by law, the Navy is com­pelled to always be work­ing toward having a dozen active super­car­ri­ers, some­thing that would have to change for either of these plans to go into effect. Hudson’s pro­pos­al also includ­ed four smaller light aircraft carriers in addi­tion to the remain­ing super­car­ri­ers, some­thing the ser­vice was considering in April, but pub­licly said it was no longer exploring, at least in the near term, the fol­low­ing month.

CAPE also rec­om­mend­ed a total of between 80 and 90 large sur­face com­bat­ants, a cat­e­go­ry that present­ly includes the Navy’s Arleigh Burke class destroy­ers and Ticonderoga class cruis­ers, while Hudson favored reduc­ing these number of these types of ships The Arleigh Burkes and Ticonderogas account for 89 ships in the ser­vice’s present fleet. There has also been talk about a future Large Surface Combatant that could replace both types, but the Navy is still just in the process of crafting the basic requirements for this vessel.

The Ticonderoga class cruiser USS Hue City sails ahead of the Arleigh Burke class destroyer USS Oscar Austin.

The plan from CAPE called for around 70 small sur­face com­bat­ants, while Hudson pro­posed slash­ing that number to just 56. At present, the Navy’s two sub­class­es of Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) are the only ves­sels it oper­ates in this cat­e­go­ry. At the end of the day, the Navy expects to have bought 38 Freedom and Independence class ships in total, some of which are already being retired.

The first-in-class USS Independence, in front, sails alongside the first-in-class USS Freedom. These are the leads ship in the two Littoral Combat Ship subclasses

The ser­vice is now also in the process of acquir­ing a new fleet of guided-mis­sile frigates, present­ly referred to as FFG(X), which would also bol­ster the size of its small sur­face combat fleet. The first of these, at least, will be based on Italian ship­builder Fincantieri’s European Multi-Purpose Frigate design, also known by the Franco-Italian acronym FREMM. 

An artist's conception of the future FREMM-based FFG(X).

Both CAPE and Hudson were in favor of increas­ing the Navy’s number of attack sub­marines, but Defense News did not give the exact pro­posed sub­ma­rine fleet totals for either study. The ser­vice is already look­ing to begin devel­op­ment of a new attack submarine with capa­bil­i­ties more akin to its trio of advanced Seawolf class boats, which were orig­i­nal­ly designed pri­mar­i­ly as hunter-killers, rather than the more multi-pur­pose Virginia class. 

The Seawolf class submarine USS Connecticut.

A shakeup in amphibious and support ships

Defense News said that the pro­pos­als from CAPE and Hudson called for between 15 and 19 amphibi­ous war­fare ships, with CAPE’s plan includ­ing 10 large amphibi­ous assault ships, such as the Wasp and America classes, while Hudson’s notion­al fleet had only five. 

The first-in-class amphibious assault ship USS America.

This cat­e­go­ry also includes dock land­ing ships, such as the San Antonio class, and these fig­ures rep­re­sent what would a major reduc­tion in the number of tra­di­tion­al amphibi­ous ships in the Navy’s over­all fleet. This is in line with new radical concepts of oper­a­tion emanating from the U.S. Marine Corps under its present Commandant General David Berger, who has called for a major shift away from long-stand­ing views of amphibi­ous war­fare.

As such, CAPE and Hudson includ­ed between 20 and 26 Light Amphibious Warships (LAW) in their pro­posed fleets, a type of ship that the Navy is now work­ing to acquire based on require­ments from the Marines, which you can read about in more detail in this past War Zone piece. The Navy has pub­licly said it could buy as many as 30 LAWs.

Sea Transport Solutions

An artist's conception of a so-called stern landing vessel design from Australian shipbuilder Sea Transport Solutions, which is reportedly one of the types the Navy and Marines are considering for the Light Amphibious Warship.

Both plans includ­ed sig­nif­i­cant increas­es in the total number of logis­tics and sup­port ships in the Navy. This includ­ed adding between 19 and 30 new “future small logis­tics” ships, which could poten­tial­ly be a type of offshore support vessel-type ship, and increas­ing the number of fleet oilers, ships able to refuel con­ven­tion­al­ly pow­ered ships, from 17 to between 21 to 31. Hudson’s pro­pos­al spe­cial­ly called for adding 19 com­mand and sup­port ships, as well. This is a cat­e­go­ry that present­ly includes an array of spe­cial­ized ves­sels within the Navy, includ­ing its two Blue Ridge class com­mand ships, Spearhead class expe­di­tionary fast trans­ports, expeditionary sea bases and transfer dock ships, and other logistics vessels.

New unmanned fleets

By far, the most sig­nif­i­cant addi­tions in both plans are dozens of unmanned surface vessels (USV), includ­ing pro­posed “large” types that are the size of traditional corvettes, and large unmanned undersea vehicles (UUV). At present, the Navy does not for­mal­ly include any ves­sels in these cat­e­gories when talk­ing about the size of its over­all fleet. The notion­al fleets from CAPE and Hudson includ­ed between 65 and 87 large USVs and between 40 and 60 large UUVs. 

The Navy, as well as the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, have all point­ed to the inclu­sion of unmanned ves­sels as a way of final­ly reach­ing the exist­ing 355-ship fleet goal. Their inclu­sion in the pro­pos­als from CAPE and Hudson meant that those notion­al fleets, which already includ­ed between 316 and 358 manned ships, would surge in size, with 534 total ves­sels between the max­i­mum pro­ject­ed size among both stud­ies. 

Two unmanned offshore support vessel-type ships the Navy, together with the Pentagon's Strategic Capabilities Office, has already been testing as part of the Ghost Fleet Overlord program.

An artist's conception of Orca, a large unmanned undersea vehicle that Boeing is building for the Navy.

In a vacuum, both of these pro­pos­als make sense in many ways, espe­cial­ly given U.S. mil­i­tary’s over­all shift in focus to prepar­ing for high-end con­flicts and grow­ing inter­est in dis­trib­uted con­cepts of oper­a­tion, includ­ing in the mar­itime domain, in recent years. The War Zone
has explored these developments on mul­ti­ple occa­sions in the past

In addi­tion, as noted, the Marine Corps is under­go­ing a massive transition that includes a com­plete rethink­ing of how it con­ducts amphibi­ous oper­a­tions, espe­cial­ly in a dis­trib­uted sce­nario in the Pacific region. The Navy, based on input from the Marines, and, to some extent, the Army, as well, has sim­i­lar­ly begun re-eval­u­at­ing how it might go about supporting ground forces during such oper­a­tions. 

On top of this, China is rapid­ly expand­ing the size and scope of its own naval capa­bil­i­ties, includ­ing adding sig­nif­i­cant num­bers of new, advanced warships, includ­ing multiple aircraft carriers, and submarines. The most recent Pentagon report to Congress on Chinese mil­i­tary devel­op­ments high­light naval modernization and shipbuilding as key areas where the People’s Liberation Army is making major advances that chal­lenge tra­di­tion­al American supe­ri­or­i­ty. This, in turn, has already prompt­ed calls for more funding for new Navy ships.

Major hurdles ahead

While there are very real strate­gic real­i­ties and con­cerns that are clear­ly dri­ving these fleet pro­pos­als, it’s unclear how real­is­tic the Navy’s plans for get­ting to the exist­ing 355-ship mark might be, let alone increas­ing that total to over 500 ves­sels. In 2019, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) assessed that the ship­build­ing plan the Navy had released that year, which envi­sioned hit­ting 355 by 2034, would cost the better part of a tril­lion dol­lars to imple­ment. The Navy itself had acknowledged that, after get­ting to its desired 355-ship fleet, it would then need $40 bil­lion every year just to oper­ate and main­tain all those ships, some 30 per­cent more than it spends annu­al­ly now.

Defense bud­gets always ebb and flow from year to year and it is espe­cial­ly hard, in gen­er­al, to project how stable fund­ing might be over a period of 15 to 25 years. Any basic bud­getary con­cerns about this mas­sive increase in the Navy’s over­all fleet size are only exac­er­bat­ed by the real­i­ties of the ongo­ing COVID-19 pan­dem­ic, which has already led to a pro­nounced reces­sion within the United States and major global eco­nom­ic down­turn. The fact of the matter is that the ser­vice is having trouble paying for the fleets it has now.

The Navy, which has had trouble meeting recruiting goals in recent years, will still need to pro­vide crews for the exist­ing and new manned ships under both pro­pos­als, as well. The ser­vice has explored a vari­ety of reduced and other novel crew con­cepts, as well as deployment mechanisms, to help ensure readi­ness with, at best, mixed results

New Navy recruits arrive at the service's Recruit Training Command in Great Lakes, Illinois.

There is clear­ly a hope that a heavy empha­sis on small­er ships with small­er crews and unmanned ves­sels could help defray many of these costs and reduce main­te­nance, infra­struc­ture, and recruit­ing demands. However, the pro­pos­als from both CAPE and Hudson pre­serve much of the ser­vice’s exist­ing sur­face and sub­ma­rine fleets and call for the addi­tion of more tra­di­tion­al manned ships, not all of which would be small. 

There can only be ques­tions about whether the Navy’s inter­nal main­te­nance infra­struc­ture, as well as the avail­abil­i­ty of con­trac­tors to pro­vide addi­tion­al ship­yard capac­i­ty for repairs, could handle the increase in total ships, no matter how small they might be. The Navy’s ship­yards are in notoriously poor condition. Although there have been some recent invest­ments made to attempt to refur­bish them, this real­i­ty has lim­it­ed their abil­i­ty to keep up with the work­load they already have.  Two years ago, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), notably assessed that the ser­vice has lost more than two decades of oper­a­tional time across its attack sub­ma­rine fleets to main­te­nance back­logs. 

The Los Angeles class sub­ma­rine USS Boise is some­thing of a poster child for these issues and is present­ly set to return to ser­vice in 2023, after which it will have been out of com­mis­sion over a need for rou­tine repairs for approximately eight years. This sub­ma­rine only entered ser­vice in 1992, mean­ing that it is set to have spent nearly a third of its career in the Navy so far sit­ting idle.

The Los Angeles class submarine Boise, pierside at Norfolk Naval Station in Virginia. When she returns to the fleet, scheduled to occur in 2023, she will have spent approximately eight years idle.

Glaring con­cerns about ship­yard capac­i­ty, and the rest of the industrial base, apply to build­ing any new ships for the Navy and keep­ing that con­struc­tion on sched­ule. Cost over­runs and delays, which are hardly unheard of in the ser­vice’s ship­build­ing pro­grams, could easily have neg­a­tive cas­cad­ing impacts on its over­all force struc­ture plans.

Pushback from Congress is some­thing that has repeatedly undermined Navy ship­build­ing plans, as well. So, there’s no guar­an­tee that leg­is­la­tors will agree to fund what­ev­er final pro­pos­al the Navy presents to them when asking for its 2022 Fiscal Year budget, either.

All told, while the stud­ies from CAPE and the Hudson Institute are cer­tain to be valu­able addi­tions to the con­tin­u­ing debate around the Navy’s future fleet struc­ture and ship­build­ing pri­or­i­ties, it very much remains to be seen how much, if any of these rec­om­men­da­tions will be imple­ment­ed any time soon.

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