30-Year Plan: Navy Puts 355-Ship Cap on Fleet Size; Plans to Introduce Large Combatant, CHAMP Auxiliary Hull

March 21, 2019 4:26 PM
USS John C. Stennis (CVN-74) steams through the Pacific Ocean on Oct. 26, 2018. US Navy Photo

The Navy’s latest 30-year shipbuilding plan outlines a path forward that includes less near-term growth in fleet size but reaches and sustains a 355-ship fleet sooner than last year’s plan.

According to the “Report to Congress on the Annual Long-Range Plan for Construction of Naval Vessels for Fiscal Year 2020,” the Navy would decommission its cruisers and mine countermeasures ships sooner, creating more gradual growth in the overall fleet size in the short term. Due to life extensions on other ships – primarily destroyers, but also a few Los Angeles-class attack submarines – the Navy would reach 355 ships in 2034 and then remain at that exact fleet size through the remainder of the 30-year plan. Both factors create a smooth path from today’s 289 ships to 314 in 2024 to 355 in 2034 – whereas last year’s plan sharply rose to hit 326 ships by 2023, then dipped back down in the late 2020s and rose again in the next decade without ever hitting 355.

“Absent this dip, the aggregate profile now provides a more predictable forecast for fleet planners, shipbuilders and the numerous supporting acquisition programs and enabling contributors – maintainers, trainers, recruiters, etc,” reads the FY 2020 plan.

From FY 2020 Long-Range Plan for Construction of Naval Vessels.

While the shape of the fleet expansion is starkly different under this year’s 30-year ship plan compared to last year’s, the document notes that an ongoing force structure assessment (FSA) due out by the end of this year could overhaul the pathway forward for the Navy yet again.

“In response to the latest National Defense Strategy, Navy Strategy and CNO’s Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority 2.0, the Navy is on track to complete the next FSA by the end of 2019. Some of the key elements that will be reviewed include ongoing threat-based fleet architecture review, logistics in support of [the Distributed Maritime Operations strategy], surface ship mix with the inclusion of the new frigate, deterrence per the National Defense Strategy, and legacy capital investments versus the efficacy of next generation capabilities.”

Implications of Fleet Size

USS O’Kane (DDG-77), USS Preble (DDG-88), USS William P. Lawrence (DDG-110) and USS Sterett (DDG-104) are moored during the harbor phase of the 2018 Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise on July 4, 2018. US Navy Photo

Though the Navy calls the 2016 FSA’s results “the Navy’s validated minimum requirement of the correct mix of 355 battle force ships,” the 30-year plan specifically does not go above 355 ships at all. The 355-ship figure is treated as a cap, rather than a minimum requirement, due to the cost of sustaining such a large fleet.

“The Navy has been getting smaller for the last four decades, recently falling below 280 total ships, with aggressive measures now in place to reverse this trend in response to the reemergence of Great Power Competition and the attendant larger, threat-based FSA requirement of 355 battle force ships. Coincident with the relatively new dynamic of purchasing more ships to grow the force instead of simply replacing ships or shrinking the force, is the responsibility to ‘own’ the additional inventory when it arrives,” reads the report.
“Consistent annual funding in the shipbuilding account is foundational for an efficient industrial base in support of steady growth and long-term maintenance planning, but equally important is the properly phased, additional funding needed for operations and sustainment accounts as each new ship is delivered – the much larger fiscal burden over the life of a ship and the essence of the challenge to remain balanced across the three integral elements of readiness–capability– capacity. Because the Navy has been shrinking not growing, and because of the disconnected timespan from purchase to delivery, often five years or more and often beyond the FYDP, there is risk of underestimating the aggregate sustainment costs looming over the horizon that must now be carefully considered in fiscal forecasting.”

The report notes that, as the fleet grows from 301 to 314 to 355 – the anticipated fleet sizes by the end of FY 2020, 2024 and 2034 – the annual cost to sustain the fleet will grow from $24 billion to $30 billion to $40 billion.

From FY 2020 Long-Range Plan for Construction of Naval Vessels.

To stay within the 355-ship cap, the Navy’s long-range plans show new ship construction dipping right after the 355-ship goal is reached – falling to just seven ships a year in 2037 and 2038 and sitting at only eight ships a year in 2036 and 2039 through 2044, compared to 12 ships in FY 2020. At the same time, ship decommissionings spike, with 14 ship set for retirement in 2035, compared to five in FY 2020.


Virginia-class fast-attack submarine USS Missouri (SSN-780) on May 31, 2018. US Navy Photo

The plan notes that, of all the ship types, attack submarines are furthest away from their goal under the 2016 FSA. The Navy today has 51 SSNs, compared to a goal of 66.

“Options are being explored regarding expanding production,” the report reads.

However, expanding production will likely prove challenging. General Dynamics Electric Boat and Huntington Ingalls Industries’ Newport News Shipbuilding are co-building Virginia-class attack submarines at a rate of two a year while also getting ready to add in a Virginia Payload Module section to the boats and begin Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine construction that is roughly the workload equivalent of two SSNs per one SSBN. Industry and congressional officials have stated concerns about the fragility of the supplier base and that the increase in workload may put more strain on suppliers rather than provide the benefits that usually come with higher workload volume and stability.

The 30-year plan states that the FY 2020 budget includes a third SSN in FY 2020 compared to the previously planned two-a-year sustained rate, but it notes that, “because it was added to the shipbuilding plan this year, advanced procurement was not programmed for the third FY2020 SSN. This will result in delivering it over a timeframe similar to a ship procured in FY2023. Per Congressional direction, the next SSN multi-year procurement contract will include options for a third submarine in FY2022 and FY2023, the years when not procuring an SSBN.”

Several sources have told USNI News that, if industry were to be asked to build a third Virginia-class sub in any given year, that submarine would likely deliver late and cost more – a fact the 30-year ship plan partially confirms.

Unmanned Systems

The Sea Hunter, a Medium Displacement Unmanned Surface Vehicle (MDUSV). US Navy Photo

The Navy’s FY 2020 budget request shows a new and significant focus on developing and fielding unmanned vehicles – particularly unmanned surface vehicles, investment for which has lagged behind unmanned underwater and aerial vehicles. The Navy wants to buy a medium and a large USV as part of its Future Surface Combatant family of ships that will also include a frigate, or small surface combatant, and a large surface combatant.

In the 30-year ship plan, the Navy writes that “Unmanned systems continue to advance in capability and are anticipated to become key enablers through all phases of warfare and in all warfare domains. Significant resources were added during PB2020 to accelerate fielding the full spectrum of unmanned and optionally manned capabilities, including man-machine teaming ahead of full autonomy. These systems are now included in wargames, exercises and limited real-world operations. They are funded in the Navy’s research and development investments and accounted for in detail in each warfare domain’s Capability Evolution Plan (CEP).”

However, it continues, these unmanned systems are not counted in the 30-year plan as battle force ships – those that count towards the 355-ship goal – even though the Navy included the Large USV in its shipbuilding construction plans in the budget request and intends to use shipbuilding funds to pay for those vehicles beginning in 2021.

“The physical challenges of extended operations at sea across the spectrum of competition and conflict, the concepts of operations for these platforms, and the policy challenges associated with employing deadly force from autonomous vehicles must be well understood prior to replacing accountable battle force ships,” the 30-year plan notes.
“Accordingly, the Navy will continue to move quickly to assess the resultant naval power delivered by these systems, moving forward based on demonstrated, evidence-based capability.”

From FY 2020 Long-Range Plan for Construction of Naval Vessels.

Aircraft Carriers

The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) illuminates its hull number on the ship’s island structure with holiday colors while moored pierside at Naval Station Norfolk. US Navy photo.

The Navy in December signed a contract to buy two Ford-class aircraft carriers together, but despite the massive amount of money involved in the contract, the Navy will actually spend less per year than previously planned, according to the long-range ship plan.

Under the current plan, the Navy will spend $2.35 billion in 2020, $2.65 billion in 2021, $2.32 billion in 2022, $1.93 billion in 2023 and $1.72 billion in 2024 to pay for activities related to the two carriers’ construction at Newport News Shipbuilding.

In contrast, under last year’s plan – where the Navy would be buying the future Enterprise (CVN-80) under one contract while also paying advance procurement costs for the unnamed CVN-81 separately – the service planned to spend slightly less in 2020 – at $2.15 billion – but then spend significantly more in later years, with a planned $3.24 billion in 2021, $2.91 billion in 2022 and $3.38 billion in 2023.

From FY 2020 Long-Range Plan for Construction of Naval Vessels.

Surface Ships

USS Mobile Bay (CG-53) conducts a replenishment-at-sea with the fleet replenishment oiler USNS Guadalupe (T-AO-200) in the Indian Ocean on Jan. 24, 2019. US Navy Photo

The long-range ship plan notes several updates for surface ships, including:

  • Eight cruisers will be retired – four in 2021 and two each in 2022 and 2024, while newer cruisers continue through the congressionally mandated cruiser modernization plan already underway.
  • The Navy would buy Flight III Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers through FY 2025 – three years and eight hulls beyond the end of the current multiyear buy – and then switch over to buying the first two Large Surface Combatants in 2025. Though the LSC is now planned for a 2025 start, compared to a previously stated data of 2023, the plan adds that “industry engagement over the next year will determine the feasibility of accelerating the effort in accordance with the imperatives of the CNO’s Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority 2.0.”
  • The Navy intends to buy the sixth and final Expeditionary Sea Base in FY 2023, after a flurry of buying ESBs in 2016, 2018 and 2019. 

Mine Countermeasures Ships

The Avenger-class mine countermeasures ship USS Chief (MCM-14) pulls into Jeju Island in the Republic of Korea (ROK) as part of a routine port visit on Sept. 26, 2017. US Navy Photo

The retirement of Avenger-class MCM ships, which had previously been pushed back, would be accelerated under this 30-year ship plan.

“The Navy is focused on both future MCM capability and near-term improvement of operational availability (Ao) of the aging Avenger-class MCMs, with priority on the forward deployed naval force (FDNF). Accordingly, the homeland threat environment supports retiring the three remaining continental United States based MCM ships in FY2020 and harvesting parts that are no longer manufactured in order to improve FDNF Ao,” according to the report. Three MCMs are stationed in San Diego, with the remainder of the fleet in Bahrain and Japan.

The report notes that the Navy is moving away from the MCM ships and towards the Littoral Combat Ship’s MCM mission package and Expeditionary MCM companies.

Auxiliary Ships

USNS Tippecanoe (T-AO 199). US Navy Photo

The ship plan outlines the timeline for the upcoming Common Hull Auxiliary Multi-Mission Platforms (CHAMPs) program that would replace five or more Navy auxiliary ship types with just two hulls: one for people-based missions, like a hospital ship, submarine tender or command and control ship; and the other for volume-based missions such as sealift and aviation logistics support.

“The Navy has funded CHAMPs development and has approved top-level requirements (TLRs) as the basis for industry studies. The request for proposal for these studies was released 2nd quarter of FY2019 and both Capability Development Documents (CDD) and Concepts of Operations (CONOP) reviews are in progress. Although early in the process, upfront collaboration with industry on CHAMP options has indicated two hull designs may be needed to meet both RO/RO and non-RO/RO requirements, in lieu of significant compromise and increased cost across the five mission areas. As program options and costs mature, additional detail will become available,” the plan reads.
This appendix shows an initial procurement of the sealift variant in FY2025 and delivery in FY2028, with the intention to accelerate procurement for a FY2026 delivery.”

Megan Eckstein

Megan Eckstein

Megan Eckstein is the former deputy editor for USNI News.

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