ARLINGTON, Va. — A new look at the Navy’s force structure and the upcoming November congressional elections will play key roles in determining whether Navy will reach its current goal of a 355-ship fleet.
The planned 2019 force structure assessment (FSA) will evaluate the size and types of ships the Navy will plan for in the future, Vice Adm. William Merz, the deputy chief of naval operations for warfare systems (OPNAV N9), said on Wednesday.
The new FSA will seek to answer such questions as to whether the Navy has enough fast-attack submarines planned, enough guided-missile destroyers and what is the role of the planned next-generation frigate (FFG(X)), he said during a panel discussion at the Defense News conference.
“A lot of [the mix of ships] will depend on the next frigate,” Merz said. “The reality is we need all of those things.”
When the Navy last updated its FSA, in December 2016, it arrived amidst a resurgent Russia and a reconsideration of how many ships the Navy needed — a great power competition pivot-point.
The new report will come as the Navy prepares for a more challenging budgetary environment and a potential change in power in the House following the November mid-term elections.
Also on Wednesday, senior members of the House Armed Services Committee told Navy and defense industry officials at the conference that creating a 355-ship fleet is anything but certain.
Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.), who was part of the same panel as Merz, was adamant about the need to increase the fleet size and suggested speeding up the timeline for construction.
Instead of taking until 2050 to have a 355-ship navy, Wittman said he wants to see this fleet size in a little more than a decade. He suggested the Navy should be authorized to buy two aircraft carriers at a time and modernize existing ships now to speed up the process field 355 ships.
“Congress was very specific. We’re going to have a 355-ship navy,” said Wittman, the chair of the House Armed Services seapower and projection forces subcommittee. Wittman’s Tidewater, Virginia district neighbors the shipbuilding-heavy Norfolk, Newport News and Portsmouth.
The need for more ships, Wittman said, is the growing threat posed by China and Russia, who are working to increase their fleet sizes. China has a 68-vessel attack submarine force, Wittman said, compared to the 45 attack submarines in the U.S. Navy.
“[That] ought to sober everyone up,” he said.
However, anticipated budget restraints make Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the HASC’s ranking member, skeptical the 355-ship fleet would ever become, he said during a keynote address shortly before Wittman and Merz’s appearance at the conference. If the upcoming November elections swing control of the House to the Democrats, Smith is in line to take over chairman’s gavel and will have a lot of influence over how future Department of Defense spending plans are created.
“This obsession with how many ships we have is horribly misplaced,” Smith said.
Instead, Smith said Congress and the Navy should be evaluating the current capabilities of the fleet, what capabilities new ships should add and what missions these ships will accomplish. The updated FSA is expected to accomplish this evaluation.
“I heard a member on the floor talking about how it’s just shocking how we have fewer ships now than we did at the start of World War I,” Smith said. “But yeah, you take that WWI Navy and put it up against the Navy we have right now, I would take the Navy we have right now and give them points. I think we’re going to be ok. Capability matters.”