Chances are the Navy’s leaders of a proposed 355-ship fleet have not even finished high school yet, according to Pentagon estimates.
“It’s going to take a long time and it’s going to take a lot of money,” said Thomas Dee, acting Under Secretary of the Navy.
“We can be on the mark by mid-century.”
Some estimates made by think tanks and the Congressional Budget Office have suggested a 355-ship Navy could be achieved faster, but Dee sounded skeptical the goal could be reached in less than three decades. Speaking Wednesday at the NDIA Expeditionary Warfare Conference in Annapolis, Dee said even if Congress added billions of dollars to the Navy’s annual budgets, perhaps a 355-ship fleet would be built by the mid to late 2040s.
Based on the Pentagon’s understanding of the industrial base’s ability to increase production, Dee said perhaps the benchmark could be reached by the mid-2040s.
“We may want it, very, very soon, perhaps we’ll be able to get there, but we’re going to have to work with our partners over on The Hill,” Dee said.
Money is the biggest constraint. A decade of operating with continuing resolutions and several years of having spending restrained by the Budget Control Act, has limited the Navy’s ability to increase fleet size, Dee said. Awarding overseas contingency operations (OCO) funding is how Dee said Congress has gotten around the Budget Control Act restraints.
“Problem with OCO is your ability to plan,” Dee said. This money is not guaranteed and can change year-to-year.
During the summer, the Congressional Budget Office released a study suggesting fleet size could be increased much quicker than what Dee says is realistic. But these estimates are not cheap and require Navy leadership to rethink how missions are accomplished.
The CBO suggested a 355-fleet could be achieved by the early 2030s, but would require the Navy to rethink what the fleet would look like and an astronomical funding increase to $3.1 trillion to build and maintain the fleet for the next 30 years.
Suggested CBO options to hasten the pace of fleet growth include extending the service life of some ships, relying on unmanned vehicles, and curtailing other programs such as not meeting a stated goal of having 66 attack submarines in 15 years.
Dee said he was not familiar with the CBO study, but increasing annual budgets alone will not quicken the pace of shipbuilding. Recruiting and retaining sailors is a constraint. Then there’s the Pentagon’s belief industrial doesn’t have the capacity to ramp up production faster, Dee said. The problem isn’t just building dry docks, but also hiring and retaining skilled shipyard workers.
There’s also the question of political will to continue funding a 355-ship Navy. Work would span multiple administrations, which generally means a near-complete turnover of civilian leadership inside the Pentagon. Planning can be put on hold while incoming civilian leaders assemble their teams. Dee, on the job for five months, is still working as an acting under-secretary.
“I’m actually willing to give up my big office and the head for (Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis) to be able to build up his team,” he said.
So, what do we do, Dee asked. The answer, he said involves technological advances, used to gain leverage in a multi-domain warfare environment. Sub-sea, surface, space, and cyber domains. Doing so, Dee said, is not just about saving money, but also using the Department of Defense’s technological advantage over competitors.
“We will not be able to buy our way out of the challenges being faced today,” Dee said. “When all else fails, we’re going to have to think our way out of this.”