A September report from the United States’ Congressional Research Service (CRS) highlights affordability problems for U.S. Navy’s current 30 Year Shipbuilding Plan and concerns over whether the 308-ship plan fully supports the Navy’s projected mission requirements. At the same time, the Chinese Navy is expanding and modernizing. Other CRS reports from this summer question whether the U.S. Navy’s projected force structures are adequate to operate within a Chinese anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) environment and match its increasing naval capabilities as the “pacing threat” in Asia.
The United States still possesses a larger, much heavier, and more capable fleet, but must disperse it around the world to meet global security interests. China is able to keep its fleet concentrated in the Western Pacific, giving it local numerical superiority. Since the current U.S. plan projects a relatively constant fleet size over the next three decades while the Chinese fleet is expected to continue to grow, the composition and capabilities of the U.S. fleet may ultimately matter more than its size.
Roadblocks to a 308-Ship Fleet
The U.S. Navy’s battle fleet has 276 vessels today. Its shipbuilding plan envisions maintaining a battle fleet of 308, which it expects to achieve in 2021. Despite a plan that calls for building 254 vessels over the next 30 years, this pace of construction will eventually be offset as older vessels are decommissioned, causing the fleet to shrink back under 300 by the 2030s.
But there are many budgetary challenges to executing that 308-vessel plan. The Congressional Budget Office analyzed the Navy’s plan and assessed that its true cost would be at least 10 percent higher than the Navy estimates, or an additional $2 billion per year, which is roughly the cost of an entire Arleigh Burke-class destroyer. Further, the plan would require annual spending nearly one-third greater than the Navy has typically spent on shipbuilding since the end of the Reagan administration. But it is uncertain whether those historic funding levels will be available as long as the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA, a.ka. “sequestration”) remains in effect, which effectively imposes a 10 percent reduction in budget levels through 2021.
While the BCA does not mandate where cuts come from, the Navy warned that it would necessarily require delaying future ship procurement and balancing against funding readiness for the existing fleet. The result would “create a smaller Navy that is limited in its ability to project power around the world and simply unable to execute the nation’s defense strategy.” The delays could also end up incurring costs greater than the BCA savings because delayed programs will cost more money to restart, and interruptions in construction could threaten the survival and capacity of segments of the U.S. shipbuilding industry.
Is a 308-Ship Fleet Enough?
The U.S. has global security commitments and its fleet is in high-demand by regional commanders. In 2014, the chief of naval operations (CNO) testified to Congress that a 450-ship fleet would be needed to meet all commander requests for Navy support. The Department of Defense adjudicates this “wishlist” and selects the requirements that the Navy will actually fill. The Navy is currently updating its Force Structure Assessment, which determines the numbers and mix of ships required to execute its missions, which the current CNO believes is likely to recommend more than the current plans for a 308-vessel end strength. Another recent CRS report assessing arguments for a larger fleet than the 308-vessel plan cites analysts who believe China’s expanding navy should be a major factor in expanding the fleet, despite the fiscal challenges to the current shipbuilding plan.
The U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence estimated in 2015 that the Chinese Navy already had over 300 ships. This included a significant number of older, less capable vessels that are rapidly being retired and replaced. At current Chinese shipbuilding levels, 70-85 percent of China’s major surface ships will be of modern designs by 2020. Still, judging equivalency between the U.S. and Chinese fleets is difficult, even ignoring differences in training, technology, maintenance, and other factors that impact a fleet’s battle-effectiveness.
A significant proportion of China’s 300 ships are small missile patrol craft, which have an exclusive anti-surface ship mission and cannot operate for long periods or far offshore. As a distant power, the United States does not operate any equivalent vessels, which lack the endurance and sustainability for long deployments. But since any prospective naval clash between the U.S. and China is likely to take place near China’s shores, within or around the “first island chain” stretching from Japan down through the Philippines, their lack of range and sustainability matters less than their maneuverability and the advanced anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs) they carry.
The United States currently has about 80 cruisers and destroyers, the largest and most capable surface combatants, which is nearly two and a half times as many as China possesses. But China has about that many smaller frigates and corvettes. These ships are less capable than destroyers, but can still carry out effective anti-air, submarine, and surface ship missions, threatening larger cruisers and destroyers with long-range ASCMs. Meanwhile, the U.S. has retired all of its frigates. Upgraded future hulls of the controversial Littoral Combat Ship program are intended to fill the U.S. Navy’s frigate requirements. But compared to China’s 80 smaller combatants, there are as yet only eight (non-upgraded) LCSs in commission, and last year the secretary of defense ordered the overall number of LCSs the Navy purchases reduced from 52 to 40.
But while the United States has advantages over China in large surface ships, it must spread them more thinly to protect global U.S. interests, while China can keep its fleet comparatively concentrated in the Western Pacific. So while the aggregate U.S. fleet is still “heavier” and more capable than China’s, the U.S. currently only has about 50 warships in the Western Pacific at any given time. The U.S. plans to increase that forward presence in Asia to 67 by 2020. While this forward U.S. presence is still far less than China’s overall fleet, it is hard to estimate how much of the Chinese fleet is deployment- or combat-ready at any given time, as opposed to being occupied by maintenance or training. Only about 20 percent of the U.S. fleet is generally deployed at any given time, but improvements to its training and maintenance cycle mean that units now have much larger windows within which they are ready and available to be deployed if necessary.
The U.S. Navy’s new Force Structure Assessment is expected to be completed this fall, but it is unclear whether it will recommend a larger fleet, and if it does, whether China will even be the primary motivator. The CRS found that most recent Department of Defense-sponsored reviews have recommended a battle fleet of roughly 350 ships. Most of these estimates depended on analysis performed by the Pentagon’s 1993 Bottom Up Review that considered changes to the post-Cold War force structure, long before China’s rapid naval modernization. A 2014 review did concede that risk of conflict in the Western Pacific might justify even more than 350 ships, though given the fiscal risk to the current 308-ship plan, funding “an even larger fleet” does not seem politically likely in the near term. At the same time, the CRS notes that if the Navy’s new assessment does recommend a larger fleet, it is likely to be in support of a greater forward presence in the Mediterranean to balance resurgent Russian naval activity around Europe, rather than to increase presence in the Western Pacific.
In May the U.S. CNO gave remarks on the necessity of leveraging international partnerships to meet maritime security challenges given flat or even declining defense budgets. In August he talked about the need to think innovatively about future ship capabilities and operating concepts for the same reason. Whatever the next force assessment recommends, what may be even more challenging than projecting the appropriate size and composition of the U.S. fleet over the next three decades is projecting the intervening political and economic circumstances that will approve and resource it.