Admirals: Navy Needs A Bigger Fleet, And Now May Be The Best Time To Plan For It

October 27, 2016 8:40 PM
Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Benfold (DDG-65), left, and the Nimitz-class Aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) transit the Philippine Sea on Sept. 23, 2016. US Navy Photo
Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Benfold (DDG-65), left, and the Nimitz-class Aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) transit the Philippine Sea on Sept. 23, 2016. US Navy Photo

A variety of Navy studies point towards the need for a bigger fleet to handle global requirements, and the upcoming change in administration and end to the Budget Control Act spending caps may present an opportunity to begin thinking creatively about what the future larger fleet may look like.

The Navy is nearing the end of a triplet of Future Fleet Architecture studies – conducted by MITRE Corporation, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Analysis (CSBA) and the Navy – to look at how new technologies and concepts may change the size and composition of the Navy in the mid-term. While the Navy has not yet released the details of the three studies, the general consensus is that the future fleet will have to be larger than today’s.

“We are the central force for deterrence and peacekeeping around the globe,” Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Bill Moran said today at the Naval Submarine League’s annual symposium.
“Demands on the Navy will continue to grow as we’re battling to reset a force that has been run hard for a very long time. This demands, of course, that we make some really tough choices. We’ve had to prioritize, we’ve had to shift our readiness and shore commands to support our deployed ships and personnel throughout the Navy, and we’ve had to accept risk in a few important modernization programs. One thing is clear, we will not be able to keep up this pace forever unless something changes. Arguably, this involves a larger and more capable fleet, resourced to be ready and manned to win whenever the nation calls us into action. What exactly that looks like is still to be studied, we’re still working on that pretty hard today. … There will continue to be much discussion and collaboration with the Navy, with [the Office of the Secretary of Defense] and with Congress as we work together to build and fund the right Navy and Joint Force for the future.”

Vice Adm. Joseph Mulloy, deputy chief of naval operations for integration of capabilities and resources, echoed the calls for a larger fleet at the conference on Wednesday. Speaking of the three studies, he said “they’ll come out about 80 percent similar and some different. They’re all, I assure you, looking for a bigger Navy, just different ways of getting it.”

Similarly, the Navy is revisiting its Force Structure Assessment that calls for an objective fleet of 308 ships – with a specific breakdown of large and small surface combatants, attack submarines, aircraft carriers and so on, based on combatant commander needs. Mulloy said “we have another study coming, the number is bigger.” The timing of the FSA’s release is unclear still, he said, since not only this administration but also the next administration would likely have to sign off on the number.

The 308-ship force has already challenged the Navy, which today sits at 272 ships and expects to reach the 308 figure in 2021 before dipping below again later in the decade. Last year the surface combatant community expressed concerns that growing missile threats in the Pacific would necessitate a higher number of cruisers and destroyers, and Navy officials have generally agreed that more attack submarines would be required in the future and reflected in the next FSA.

Mulloy noted in his speech that, even as the Navy has struggled to pay for its shipbuilding needs in current budget conditions, a higher ship count would only be affordable if the Navy received a higher portion of Defense Department funding or if the Pentagon topline were increased overall.

Despite the funding challenges, Mulloy said the timing of the FSA and the Future Fleet Architecture was opportune: a new administration is coming in, and the Budget Control Act that has capped defense spending levels since 2011 will end after 2023 – just outside of the FYDP. Mulloy said the time could be right for a national discussion about taxes and spending priorities, and where national defense and the Navy specifically fits in with that. He made clear that the nation needs a larger and a different Navy than it has today, but higher toplines would be needed to evolve into a force that can meet future challenges with alternative ship designs, netted manned and unmanned systems, new weapons and more.

Adding to the good timing is the anticipated passage of a defense authorization bill that would grant more acquisition authority to service chiefs, somewhat reducing Pentagon oversight and allowing the service leaders to control their own development programs. These reforms would allow Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson to move forward on programs – different amphibious ships, larger destroyers, smaller aircraft carriers, or whatever the Future Fleet Architecture studies recommend – to more quickly design, develop and field the technologies that will transform the fleet.

With all these opportunities for major changes coming up, Mulloy predicted that the annual 30-year shipbuilding plan may soon become irrelevant. He said the Navy would submit one with its 2018 budget request, but he said the plan can stifle creative thinking and may be revamped if the Navy is serious about transforming its fleet. For example, the plan looks 30 years out and replaces every decommissioning destroyer with another destroyer, every amphibious ship with a similar amphibious ship, and so on. He said eliminating this practice and focusing on capabilities rather than platforms may encourage more innovation.

Megan Eckstein

Megan Eckstein

Megan Eckstein is the former deputy editor for USNI News.

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