A 355-ship Navy has long been the holy grail for a service looking to reclaim its unchallenged pre-eminence on the seas.
Navy strategists and private analysts have repeatedly set the figure as the fleet’s gold standard, with an expansion and modernization designed to keep pace with growing maritime threats from China and Russia.
Candidate Donald Trump campaigned on the ship expansion in 2016, and President Trump officially made the 355-ship target official U.S. policy with the signing in late 2017 of a defense authorization bill that called for a fleet of 355 “battle force ships … as soon as practicable.”
But top Navy brass are suddenly questioning whether it’s the right standard as the Pentagon prepares for rough waters in budget negotiations.
“In light of the new National Defense Strategy, and changes in the national security environment since that guidance came out, we are doing a new force structure assessment. We will see where that goes,” Adm. John M. Richardson, chief of naval operations, told reporters last week.
When asked directly whether the goal of a 355-ship fleet could be dropped, Adm. Richardson replied: “We may get a new number. We may hold to , we may not. The analysis is in progress.”
The Navy currently sails 284 vessels in its battle force fleet, up from 276 in 2017 but far short of the 355-ship goal.
Thomas Callender, a retired Navy submarine officer and a defense analyst at The Heritage Foundation, argued in an in-depth report published in October that the 355-ship target underestimates the Navy’s real needs, especially if the service is expected to be able to confront two “major regional crises” at the same time.
His survey said the Navy needs a 40 percent bump in fleet size to 400 ships by 2039, including a 13th aircraft carrier, 19 new small surface combatants, seven new amphibious ships and 22 more combat logistics ships. The projected extra cost: $4 billion to $6 billion annually.
“It is incumbent on Congress and the [Department of Defense] to prioritize and provide stable funding for a long-term shipbuilding plan to achieve this requirement. Otherwise, the ability of the United States to deter aggression and win in conflict when necessary will be at risk,” Mr. Callender wrote.
Bridge too far?
To some defense skeptics, the 355-ship goal was already a bridge too far.
The Trump administration’s proposed final funding figure for defense — now expected to come in at $750 billion for fiscal year 2020 — should allow the Navy to cover operational requirements, but any reduction in the budget talks with skeptical House Democrats could change that calculus dramatically.
“Fully implementing the National Defense Strategy means you’ll need trade-offs. Things have to go,” said Todd Harrison, director of defense budget analysis at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“The 355-ship Navy is out the window if you want to implement the [administration’s] plan,” he said at a recent briefing on the Pentagon’s coming funding fights.
But abandoning the 355-ship target could open a gap in U.S. naval capabilities, allowing Russian and Chinese military strategists to gain an edge in some of the world’s most strategic and contested waterways.
“For the first time since the end of the Cold War, the United States is at risk of losing a future war against peer or near-peer competitors, mainly due to budget instability and insufficient funding provided by Congress,” said a November report by members of the National Defense Strategy Commission, a congressionally mandated bipartisan panel comprising a dozen current and former high-ranking defense and intelligence officials.
Other defense analysts say the Navy may be wise to move away from an overall goal and focus instead on more targeted deployments and a larger reliance on unmanned vessels and other next-generation technologies.
“Naval power is not solely a function of hulls in the water,” James Holmes, a professor of maritime strategy at the Naval War College, wrote recently in the journal The National Interest.
Think of ships as delivery vehicles,” he said. “They deliver combat power to a particular scene of action at a particular time, in concert with friendly sea, ground, and air forces, to overcome the combat power a particular foe has staged there. Tallying up ship numbers, then, makes poor shorthand for U.S. naval power.”
Down from the heights
Even a 355-ship fleet would be a far cry from the service’s all-time high of a 6,084-ship fleet in 1944, during the height of World War II.
After a slight drop at the end of the war, the Navy’s total seagoing force surged again during the Cold War, topping out at a fleet of 1,030 ships in the mid-1960s, according to figures compiled by the Naval History and Heritage Command, which has tracked the Navy’s fleet since 1886.
What followed was a long, slow decline accelerated by the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. By 2015, the Navy bottomed out at 271 ships, a number that has nudged up only modestly.
Although the U.S. maintains a qualitative and firepower edge, China’s navy in sheer numbers has already surpassed the U.S., with 317 warships and submarines in active service, according to a survey last year.
Revising the yardstick
The reassessment of the total fleet and possible reduction in goals may not be the doomsday scenario that some fear.
The Navy’s reassessment of its fleet requirements “is moderately significant,” said Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, though he acknowledged that it was a “departure from what [the Navy] was pretty unequivocal about” in past fleet analyses.
Russia’s naval objectives remain tailored toward “very high-end, very capable and very quiet” submarine operations in the North Atlantic. Other maritime missions in places such as the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea are more defensive in nature and tend to stay in the shallow waters near Russia’s coastlines.
Moscow’s reluctance to venture into international waters — “blue water” operations — means a lighter U.S. surface naval presence is needed to curb those efforts, Mr. Clark said. “All those areas are best served … by smaller naval combatants” or unmanned vessels.
Navy leaders are already emphasizing a different “fleet design and ship mix” along with targeted deployments to deal with potential threats while moving away from the 355-ship figure, said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Unmanned vessels may “not replace a manned ship on a one-for-one basis,” but they can “help make a single ship do more” in an area like the North Atlantic, Mr. Clark said.
The bigger menaces, however, remain the steady growth of the Chinese navy and the regional threats posed to U.S. allies in the Pacific, Mr. Clark said. Although the U.S. naval presence in the Baltics or the Persian Gulf could be reduced as part of a smaller total fleet, U.S. strategists say, they will need to maintain a persistent and sizable presence in Asia as China’s military capabilities expand.
While the U.S. Navy faces global responsibilities, China remains steadfast in developing “a full-spectrum navy” that could challenge the U.S. in the Pacific, Mr. Clark said. Beijing’s “power projection is growing slowly … [and] China has been doing a lot of naval construction” in the contested South China Sea, Mr. Clark noted.
Naval threats to Taiwan, the Philippines and other U.S. allies in the region can likely be deterred only by a strong American naval presence. “For the Navy, China is the most important of the great powers,” he said.
“If our Navy is too small to deter great power adversaries such as China or Russia in the future,” he said, “the cost to fight and hopefully win that war will greater exceed the monetary cost to build a 400-ship Navy.”
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