SECDEF Esper Calls for 500-Ship Fleet by 2045, With 3 SSNs a Year and Light Carriers Supplementing CVNs

October 6, 2020 3:56 PM - Updated: October 6, 2020 5:03 PM
The Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group transits in formation with the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group while conducting dual carrier and airwing operations in the Philippine Sea on June 23, 2020. US Navy Photo

This post has been updated to include additional information from Secretary Esper’s rollout of Battle Force 2045.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced a new future fleet plan for the Navy that would grow the attack submarine force, supplement nuclear-powered aircraft carriers with light carriers to achieve greater day-to-day presence, and invest heavily in small and unmanned ships for distributed operations.

Esper’s Battle Force 2045, which he rolled out during an online event today at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, lays out plans for achieving a fleet of 500 manned and unmanned ships by 2045, and a fleet of 355 traditional battle force ships by 2035 – all in a resource-constrained budget environment.

First, he said, the fleet would have a larger and more capable attack submarine fleet of 70 to 80 SSNs.

“If we do nothing else, the Navy must begin building three Virginia-class submarines a year as soon as possible,” he said in the event during his opening remarks. “If we do nothing else, we should invest in attack submarines,” he repeated later during a question-and-answer session.

Esper also called for refueling a total of seven Los Angeles-class SSNs, compared to the five or six the Navy had previously discussed, and invest heavily in the SSN(X) future submarine program.

Second, Esper stated that nuclear-powered aircraft carriers would remain the most visible deterrence on the seas, but he said a new future air wing would have to be developed to increase their range and lethality, and that light carriers would have to supplement the Nimitz- and Ford-class supercarriers to help achieve greater day-to-day presence while preserving limited CVN readiness, which has been strained recently by overuse and backups at maintenance yards. Up to six light carriers, possibly based on the America-class amphibious assault ship design, would operate both instead of and alongside the CVNs.

“While we anticipate that additional study will be required to assess the proper high/low mix of carriers, eight to 11 nuclear-powered carriers will be necessary to execute a high-end conflict and maintain our global presence, with up to six light carriers joining them,” Esper said in his remarks.

Virginia-class submarine Delaware (SSN-791) was moved out of a construction facility into a floating dry dock using a transfer car system in 2018. HII Photo

Third, Esper called for between 140 and 240 unmanned and optionally manned ships on the surface and under the sea, conducting missions ranging from laying mines, conducting missile strikes, resupplying manned ships, surveillance, serving as decoys and more.

“They will add significant offensive and defensive capabilities to the fleet at an affordable cost in terms of both sailors and dollars,” he said.
“Earlier this month, the Sea Hunter prototype completed operations with the USS Russell, demonstrating that unmanned surface vehicles are technologically feasible and operationally valuable.”

Fourth, he called for 60 to 70 smaller combatants, such as the new frigate class under contract now, to increase capacity and free up larger ships for more complex missions.

Fifth, Esper said strategic sealift and logistics would be pivotal for distributed maritime operations, with 70 to 90 combat logistics ships required – though he noted that further work would be done in this area to understand if that was enough for the naval battle, as well as to understand what else would be needed to ensure ground forces could be moved en masse to a fight by sea if called upon.

Sixth, he said, the Navy would need unmanned aircraft launching off carrier decks to cover all the missions of today’s air wing: fighters, refueling, early warning and electronic attack. He alluded this recently while speaking to sailors aboard USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70), USNI News previously reported.

And lastly, he pledged his support for the Marines’ Force Design 2030 effort and the new classes of ships and connectors needed to accomplish this, though he added that more work would be needed in this area.

“The Marine Corps is currently in the process of implementing its force structure plan, and I support the commandant’s vision to recalibrate to great power competition. As such, we see a need for more amphibious warfare ships than previously planned, in the 50 to 60 range, but more work needs to be done in this area as well,” he said.

In sum, Esper said, this proposed future fleet will “be a more balanced naval force that will have a greater number of smaller surface combatants and unmanned or optionally manned ships, along with an ample submarine force and a modern strategic deterrent. It will also be able to deliver overwhelming fires balanced across four domains: from the air, from the land, from the sea, and from under the sea. And it will align with the National Defense Strategy as we optimize force posture and implement novel concepts that make us more agile, less predictable, and fully capable of rapidly shifting to combat operations, when needed.”

“Achieving Battle Force 2045 over the long run will not be easy. Parochial interests, budget uncertainties, industrial capacity, and other competing factors will contest our ambitions,” he added.

Esper called for Congress to act as a partner in this effort to create a future fleet that succeeds in operations below the level of conflict but can also quickly ramp up for a high-end fight. Though he offered up a greater share of the overall Pentagon budget to support the Navy in its modernization and growth, he said Congress would have to help by providing predictable and sufficient budgets, allowing the Navy and Marines to divest of legacy gear to help pay for developing and buying new systems, and passing into law spending authorities such as allowing the Navy to take any unspent money at the end of the fiscal year and reroute it to a shipbuilding piggy bank instead of watching the money expire.

Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper thanks the crew of the USS Bonhomme Richard for their efforts in battling a multi-day blaze that began July 12 on the ship, docked at Naval Base San Diego, Calif., Sept. 18, 2020. DoD photo.

As a show of good faith, Esper praised Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite for finding significant funds in the budget to help refocus to shipbuilding. Braithwaite told USNI News in an interview this summer that he planned to go beyond his predecessor’s plan to find $40 billion over five years and wanted to find even more to overhaul the fleet. Esper said that, as a result of that work, he felt comfortable giving the Navy a bigger piece of the budget pie to help achieve Reagan-era levels of shipbuilding spending.

“To start, we have charted a credible path to reaching 355 ships that works within real-world budget constraints. Through its own reviews and reforms, the Navy did good work these past several months freeing up funds in the coming years for the building of new ships. The Navy must continue these initiatives; they are essential to ensuring an adequate shipbuilding account for the task ahead,” Esper said.
“Given the serious reform efforts put forward by the Secretary of the Navy and the Chief of Naval Operations – and their commitment to continue them – I agreed to provide additional funding from across the DoD enterprise, funding that was harvested from ongoing reform efforts, such as Combatant Command reviews, Fourth Estate reforms, and other initiatives. Together, these additional funding streams will increase the shipbuilding account to 13 percent within the Navy’s topline, matching the average percentage spent for new ships during President Reagan’s buildup in the 1980s.”

Beyond the fiscal challenges, Esper noted two other challenges to the Navy’s ability to make best use of the fleet it has today and to find room in the budget to grow: over-demand for naval forces from the combatant commanders, and backlogs of maintenance work at public and private shipyards.

On maintenance, Esper said, “we also recognize what has been the Navy’s Achilles heel: shipyard capacity and maintenance delays. We cannot build and sustain our proposed fleet without the ability to service and repair a greater number of vessels in a more timely fashion. Nor can we sacrifice shipbuilding for maintenance. The objective is to have as many ships continuously at sea as possible; to maintain a high level of readiness. We must do both. We can do both. We will continue our efforts to revitalize and expand the Navy’s four shipyards, while promoting partnerships with private shipyards across the country – without pulling from the shipbuilding account.”

On demand, Esper acknowledged that the Navy has been strained to keep up with demands for presence in U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, U.S. Central Command and U.S. European Command. He committed to helping the service get on a better path to readiness while also being able to meet the most pressing COCOM needs. Esper said the National Defense Strategy prioritizes future readiness and lethality over current operations, and as such he said the service needed to reshape the fleet to prepare for a sophisticated war against China rather than spend all its money and readiness fighting lower-end fights today. He didn’t specify where the Navy may see some relief, but among the challenges the service has had in recent years is maintaining an aircraft carrier in or just outside the Persian Gulf to push back against Iran – essentially asking the Navy to keep a carrier sailing back and forth in a small box to address a lower-level threat under the NDS. Esper said NDS calls for INDOPACOM to be prioritized, and other COCOM requests to be scaled down so more forces can be sent to the Pacific or sent back home to rebuild readiness. It’s unclear when that will start happening for the Navy or what that will look like.

The Future Naval Force Study effort came about in January, when the Navy was supposed to finalize both an Integrated Naval Force Structure Assessment and a 30-year shipbuilding plan to release alongside the Fiscal Year 2021 budget request in early February. When those two documents reached the Office of the Secretary of Defense for approval, Esper had concerns both on the content and the cost of the plans. He sent them back to the Navy and Marine Corps for more work.

Ultimately, the Navy was not able to make the changes that Esper wanted to see, resulting in the FNFS effort that Esper delegated to his deputy, David Norquist. Esper declined to release the Navy’s original INFSA and long-range ship plans to Congress, noting the additional work OSD was doing to create a new plan.

Under this effort, three plans were crafted: the Navy and Marine Corps plan, a plan by the Pentagon’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) office, and one by the Hudson Institute.

Esper said during his remarks today that the FNFS was ““a comprehensive, cost-constrained and threat-informed assessment aligned with the National Defense Strategy.” He said each of the three proposals was wargamed against a detailed study of where China is now and where it’s heading, so OSD could see how each proposed naval force would handle various future mission sets against a realistic high-end adversary. The plan, which USNI News understands draws from the best of all three proposals, will “drive a major shift in how we design, build and sustain our fleet and conduct naval operations in the years and decades to come,” Esper said.

USNI News previously reported that OSD in past years has taken varying levels of interest in the Navy’s plans before passing them along to Congress, sometimes giving closer analysis and sometimes just signing off on what the Navy pitches. But this is the first time in a long time a secretary of defense has taken the decision out of the Navy’s hands and created a new process by which future shipbuilding plans – and therefore manning, operations and sustainment plans, too – would be decided.

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (Sept. 25, 2019) Secretary of Defense Dr. Mark T. Esper is briefed on USS Gerald R. Ford’s (CVN 78) advanced weapons elevators (AWE) by Capt. John J. Cummings, Ford’s commanding officer. Esper visited Ford to see first-hand the progress the ship is making during its post-shakedown availability and to speak directly with Ford and Navy leadership. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Zachary Melvin)

The Pentagon and the Navy have tried to couch FNFS as a collaborative effort, with a Pentagon spokesman telling USNI News that “this review, the Future Naval Force Study (FNFS), is a collaborative OSD, Joint Staff and Department of the Navy (DoN) effort to assess future naval force structure options and inform future naval force structure decisions and the 30-year shipbuilding plan.” Still, this is a new level of oversight from OSD, with several underlying issues contributing to Esper’s desire to take control of the process: budgets are expected to be flat or declining in the coming years; the Navy and Marine Corps have pitched several new classes of manned and unmanned vessels to help fight China, even while declining to make cuts elsewhere to pay for them; and maintenance and other readiness contributors have challenged the Navy to make best use of the fleet they have today, calling into question how they’d support the larger fleet proposed in internal Navy/Marine Corps INFSA plans, USNI News understands.

Despite the late release of the FNFS, its recommendations will still affect decisions for the FY 2022 budget, much of which should already be written by this time of year at the service level. Esper also promised today that, instead of waiting until February when the FY 2022 budget is due, he would this year release the FNFS results and the long-range shipbuilding plan to Congress.

Though likely to face concerns from the other services and from lawmakers over this shift in how DoD funds will be spent, Esper couched the FNFS and the resulting Battle Force 2045 plan into historical context.

“Over the past several years, the Department had to recover from the crippling effects of sequestration, inadequate funding, continuing resolutions, and years of budget uncertainty. We also placed insufficient attention on the high-end fight, which many believed was behind us with the Cold War’s end,” he said.
“The good news is that we are now on the road to recovery by first restoring the readiness of the current fleet; and second, by divesting from legacy systems and lower priorities in order to modernize the force. We are now at the point where we can – and indeed, we must – chart a new path to a future fleet that will maintain our naval superiority long into the future.

“Today, cutting-edge technologies are fundamentally altering the character of warfare and expanding the geometry of the battlefield in multiple ways. In the maritime domain, artificial intelligence, autonomous systems, ubiquitous sensors, and long-range precision weapons will play an increasingly leading role in a future high-end fight,” he continued.
“Whoever harnesses these technologies first will have a clear advantage on the high seas for years to come. Getting there ahead of everyone else demands a whole-of-nation effort.”

Megan Eckstein

Megan Eckstein

Megan Eckstein is the former deputy editor for USNI News.

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