The Navy’s secretary nominee has embraced a vision of the future naval fleet that is larger and includes new hull types in support of distributed maritime operations – but he also fully embraces the Ford-class aircraft carrier, in contrast to one of the main efforts being considered by former Acting Secretary Thomas Modly to attempt to trim costs to evolve the fleet amid flat budgets.
The Navy over the last year or so has doubled down on its need to focus on smaller ships – not only the small surface combatant that had become the centerpiece of its plans to implement distributed maritime operations (DMO) and spread warfighting capability across vast oceans, but also smaller amphibious and logistics ships to allow Marines to disperse, and unmanned or optionally manned vessels that could act as decoys, move supplies, collect intelligence and targeting data or even remotely fire on targets.
But all these ideas cost money, something the Navy does not expect to see more of in the next few budget cycles.
In light of that budget reality, Modly had kicked off a series of efforts aimed at finding cost-savings that would free up money for Navy priorities that couldn’t be squeezed into the limited budget. A Stem-to-Stern initiative sought $40 billion in savings over five years and was meant to wrap up in June. He had also assembled a Blue-Ribbon Future Carrier 2030 (FC-2030) Task Force that was going to look at whether the Navy needed to continue buying the Ford-class carriers for a price tag of nearly $12.5 billion apiece, or whether another aircraft carrier concept could meet the fleet’s needs on a smaller budget.
With Modly stepping down on April 7, the Navy is already moving in a different direction and may do so even more if Kenneth Braithwaite is confirmed as the next secretary.
“Acting Secretary of the Navy James E. McPherson recently determined the Department of the Navy will not, for the time being, move forward with the Future Carrier 2030 effort. DON will fully support the Department of Defense’s internal study on future force structure requirements, which will include a carrier review,” Navy spokeswoman Cmdr. Sarah Higgins told USNI News.
“Other DON initiatives, like Stem to Stern, Education for Seapower, and Make Ford Ready summits, will continue.”
Braithwaite testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee last week in a confirmation hearing, in the hopes of becoming the second confirmed Navy secretary during the Trump administration. Two long-term acting secretaries have also led the service.
To accompany the in-person testimony, Braithwaite answered 361 questions in 103 pages of written answers to advance policy questions provided by SASC members. In those written answers, he pledged his support for a 355-ship fleet and a new fleet design that embraces smaller hulls and unmanned or minimally manned ships that help the Navy cover more ocean at once. He also pledges full support to the Ford-class program.
“It is my understanding that a 2016 study completed by the RAND corporation, which examined notional aircraft carrier variants that could replace or supplement the FORD-class CVN, confirmed the design attributes of the FORD Class CVN in a near-peer conflict. It is further my understanding that the capabilities of survivability, maintainability, and power projection have been designed into our FORD-class CVNs to support the high-end fight. However, should circumstances change, I will keep an open mind to other alternatives that provide the right warfighting capabilities required by the Combatant Commanders,” he wrote.
He acknowledged that USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) had experienced technological challenges along the way, which Braithwaite described as typical of a first-in-class ship. But he said “in this emerging era of Great Power competition, Ford-class aircraft carriers will serve as the most agile and lethal combat platform in the world. Ford-class carriers provide unparalleled advances in operational availability, flexibility to accommodate high power/energy warfighting advances, increased sortie generation, and improved survivability to defeat projected threats.”
More broadly on the fleet, he wrote that “I believe the Navy’s force structure needs to be larger than it is today in order to implement the National Defense Strategy (NDS) and share the Secretary of Defense’s commitment to building a Navy of at least 355 ships. At the same time, the character of maritime warfare is changing rapidly. Technological advancements in space, cyber, and long-range missiles increase the potential for adversaries to track, target, and threaten Navy ships, as well as other joint platforms. Therefore, and to maintain our maritime superiority, we must explore a range of alternative ‘future fleet’ designs that fully meet the demands of the NDS, while being compatible with future warfighting doctrine, threat developments, and budget constraints. If confirmed, I will actively participate in any reviews and analyses of the Navy’s ‘future fleet’ force structure,” he wrote.
Asked what changes he would make to fleet plans, Braithwaite wrote, “I believe the new ‘future fleet’ force structure requirement will need to factor in modern warfighting concepts that prioritize joint operations and Navy and Marine Corps integration, critical operational attributes such as distributed awareness and lethality, and other assets integral to the joint fight such as strategic sealift. Composition should shift to fewer larger surface platforms, increased smaller surface combatants, greater reliance on lightly- and optionally-manned ships, and an ample submarine force. Emphasis should also be placed on building a future fleet that will be ready and lethal over its lifetime by remaining affordable, sustainable, and adaptable in an ever-changing environment. Finally, the Navy should focus on maintaining a robust and healthy industrial base.”
These answers are in line with recent Navy convention, with President Donald Trump having run on a 350-ship fleet and the Navy generating the 355-ship figure in a 2016 force structure assessment. The service has been refining its concept for distributed maritime operations since about 2016, has discussed the need to rely less on large combatants and more on small combatants since early 2019 and began a funding push for a family of unmanned surface vessels in the Fiscal Year 2020 budget request.
Still, the Navy doesn’t expect to receive any more money in coming years, and its budget is bogged down by major efforts such as building the Columbia-class ballistic-missile submarine, trying to increase shipbuilding to grow the fleet, keeping up investments that have boosted naval aviation readiness, trying to overhaul public shipyards to allow for a similar increase in readiness in nuclear-powered submarines and aircraft carriers, and paying for increasingly expensive personnel costs while also growing the force to man a larger Navy.
Modly hoped the Stem-to-Stern review would find near-term savings, and that the carrier review might find more significant savings in the long-term. The Navy has been wary of deviating from traditional nuclear-powered aircraft carriers in the past because of the fragility of the industrial base, with many sole-source companies at risk of shuttering if the demand for their nuclear ship parts drops. But with the Navy also hoping to increase its nuclear-powered submarine production, there was some hope that upping submarine production in support of the National Defense Strategy would give some leeway to take a break from nuclear-powered carriers and perhaps allow the Navy to buy some conventional or smaller carriers for a lower price without damaging the industrial base.
In addition to his strong support for the Ford-class carriers, Braithwaite also wrote that unmanned systems in all domains would be “key enablers in future conflict.”
Asked how to free up Navy destroyers currently tasked with conducing ballistic missile defense patrols rather than being free to roam the oceans to respond more freely to combatant commander needs, Braithwaite wrote that unmanned surface vessels were the answer.
“I believe there are several opportunities where advancements in technologies can transition traditional missions and roles from the current Aegis BMD ships. As an example, I am aware the Navy is pursing the development and fielding of Large Unmanned Surface Vessels (LUSV) that, if configured accordingly, could provide BMD capability similar to BMD DDGs and offer flexibility of employment for Aegis BMD ships. Should I be confirmed, I would explore all options that provide the required combat capabilities at the most value to the Combatant Commander,” he wrote.