SECNAV Modly: Path to 355 Ships Will Rely on New Classes of Warships

February 3, 2020 1:48 PM
The Honorable Thomas Modly, acting Secretary of the Navy, talks with Capt. John J. Cummings, USS Gerald R. Ford'(CVN 78) commanding officer, in the ship’s pilothouse. Modly embarked Ford after the ship successfully completed Aircraft Compatibility Testing to discuss Ford’s progress and to see the ship operate at sea. US Navy photo.

The Navy’s plans to get to 355 manned ships by 2030 will rely on new classes of ships that don’t exist yet – including new kinds of amphibious and supply ships as well as “lightly manned” ships – the acting Navy secretary told USNI News.

The Force Structure Assessment that will lay out the Navy’s path to this larger fleet, which leadership has described as “355-plus, plus unmanned,” has been delayed and won’t come out until after the Fiscal Year 2021 budget request is released next week. FY 2021 will put the Navy on a path to crest over 300 ships, Acting Secretary o the Navy Thomas Modly told USNI News in a phone interview, but the real growth will come in the FY 2022 request.

Still, Modly previewed what the FSA might hold.

“We haven’t done a really comprehensive force structure assessment in a couple of years; 2016 was the last one. So we started on a new path for that last fall, and what we’re finding in that force structure assessment is that the number of ships we need are going to be more than 355. And when you add in some of the unmanned vessels and things like that that we’re going through experimental phases on, it’s probably going to be significantly more than [355],” he said.
“There are certain ship classes that don’t even exist right now that we’re looking at that will be added into that mix, but the broad message is, it’s going to be a bigger fleet, it’s going to be a more distributed fleet, it’s going to be a more agile fleet. And we need to figure out what that path is and also understand our topline limitations, because no one wants a 355-plus fleet that’s hollow, that we can’t maintain. So we’re looking at balancing all those things.”

Asked what new ship classes the service is considering, Modly mentioned new amphibious ships, as well as new kinds of supply ships and “lightly manned” ships that are “more like missile magazines that would accompany surface action groups.”

Talk of a new class of amphibious warships began last summer, when Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. David Berger called for alternative kinds of amphibious lift for Marines in his Commandant’s Planning Guidance. Since that time, Marine Corps and Navy officials at various conferences have suggested that the services are narrowing in on the Offshore Support Vessel as a model for what they want. Having several OSVs instead of one dock landing ship (LSD), for example, might be able to carry the same number of Marines but distribute them across the littorals instead of concentrating them on one hull – which defensively makes them harder to target and offensively allows them to be more agile under the Distributed Maritime Operations and Expeditionary Advance Base Operations concepts.

On the other hand, public talk of a “lightly manned” ship type is new. The Navy had previously envisioned its Large Unmanned Surface Vehicle to serve as a magazine ship for manned combatants, but Congress used its annual defense bill to block the Navy from building an unmanned ship with vertical launch tubes. Making these ships “lightly manned” could keep the magazine ship concept alive while alleviating congressional concerns, and could create the added benefit of allowing the small crews to use their hulls to train with other nations’ navies during peacetime.

In the FY 2020 budget request the Navy released last year, the service wanted to move out quickly on the LUSV, for which prototyping was already taking place under a secretive Pentagon program that had not been talked about publicly until that point. Lawmakers pushed back and slowed the program down due to concerns about the maturity of the technology the Navy was betting on.

Modly, when asked why the Navy was betting so much of its ability to get to 355 ships by the end of the decade on quickly acquiring brand new ship classes that haven’t gone through the Navy and industry design and construction process yet, said, “I think ‘quickly’ is going to have to define everything we do, because the world is changing pretty quickly and we’re going to have to react more quickly.”

“You look at the frigate program: we think, because of the way we’ve approached that program, we’ve probably taken three years off the product development lifecycle for that. So we have to start doing the same type of thing: looking at proven hulls, things that can be adaptable for different areas. I understand the Hill’s concerns about unmanned, and we get that. … We have to convince them with data: we have to wargame this, we have to iterate it over and over again.”

The acting secretary added that President Donald Trump ran in 2016 on a larger fleet, and Congress passed the 355 figure into law in 2017. Though the Navy only has assumptions from wargames and simulations today regarding these new classes of ships, he said the service needed to settle on a “north star” and begin the research and development and construction to get hulls in the water, and then it could refine its vision as needed once fleet leaders understand how the new and old ships work together to bring naval power to a distributed fight.

Despite these big plans for the 2020s, leading to achieving a 355-ship fleet by 2030, the money doesn’t seem to be flowing from the Office of the Secretary of Defense to support that buildup alongside the expensive recapitalization of the ballistic missile submarine fleet, rebuilding readiness, manning a larger fleet and more.

Modly said the FY 2021 budget – expected to be released next week – will allow the Navy to grow some, ahead of what he expects will be a much stronger 2022 budget.

“I think what you’ll see is mostly an emphasis on readiness – we don’t want to have a hollow force, and so we had to make some trades in the end game, but we’re still on a path to grow the Navy,” he said.
“This year, this budget will keep us on a path to grow to over 300, but the ultimate goal was to grow to an even bigger fleet than that,” and the Navy is already looking at its 2022 planning and eyeing multiple paths to grow faster.

Modly said that, in the absence of the FSA this year, the 2021 Navy budget request is guided by the National Defense Strategy. That document is widely regarded as a maritime strategy, with an emphasis on distributed operations in the Pacific to counter China.

Asked why the Navy was struggling to get the funds it needs to grow to 355 ships, despite the president and Congress supporting that figure and despite the NDS being maritime-focused, Modly told USNI News, “well, it’s obvious to us in the Navy – and some of that’s parochial, and some of it’s just the thinking that we have – that it’s a maritime strategy. And particularly if you think about more of a shift to the Pacific and the threats emanating potentially from China and other areas in that region, our view is: look at the map, it’s mostly water out there. So the maritime strategy is a big piece of the National Defense Strategy.

“But, you know, the Secretary of Defense has to balance all that with the demands from the Air Force; we’re creating a new Space Force; obviously the Army has a role in that theater and other theaters. So we’re just going through the process of understanding what does the joint warfighting scenario look like in there. We’re trying to make the case for a bigger Navy, and I will continue to make the case for a bigger Navy, but ultimately that comes down to Secretary (Mark) Esper and the president to determine whether or not he wants to shift dollars to make that happen more rapidly,” Modly continued.
“I told the Navy that we’re going to head out on that path starting in 2022, and we’re going to drive towards getting to 355 by the end of the decade. I am completely convinced that there’s money within our budget that could be spent a lot more efficiently – I’m talking about just the Navy budget – and we have to do the work to do that before we can convince anybody else above us to give us more in our topline.”

Megan Eckstein

Megan Eckstein

Megan Eckstein is the former deputy editor for USNI News.

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