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Road to 350: Can the US Build a 350-Ship Fleet the Navy Actually Wants?

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Road to 350: Can the US Build a 350-Ship Fleet the Navy Actually Wants?

Shipbuilding capacity, political & budget uncertainty, combat capability, complicate any new plan.

Road to 350: Can the US Build a 350-Ship Fleet the Navy Actually Wants?
Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Scott Taylor

The incoming Trump administration has stated that one of its goals is to increase the size of the United States Navy from its current 272 ships to 350. Last week, I wrote about the current status of the U.S. Navy, its size, makeup, missions, and distribution around the globe to help give context to the competing wisdom, plans, and advice that has begun to percolate on how that growth can be achieved. Before Trump’s election victory, I had also written about the fiscal challenges that the Navy’s current 308-ship plan faces. Beside the budgetary problems with building a larger fleet, it is unclear whether the U.S. shipbuilding industrial base could construct that larger fleet before President Trump and even one or two of his successors are out of office and there is an open question as to whether the additional ships would necessarily be ones the Navy wants.

Does the Navy need 350 ships?

Various defense panels and private analysts have advocated for a fleet of around 350 ships over the years. Trump campaign advisors cited one of these review panel’s endorsement of a 350-ship fleet in justifying the campaign’s plan. According to a pair of Congressional Research Service studies completed this fall on Navy force structure and fleet size, all the government panels that have recommended a 350 ship fleet turn out to refer back to a government analysis called the Bottom Up Review, conducted in 1993, that recommended a fleet of 346 ships.

The drastically different geopolitical circumstances and threat capabilities that informed that estimate in the immediate post-Cold War do not necessarily address the requirements on the fleet looking ahead to the next thirty years. In 2010, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates rejected one of these 346-ship endorsements, saying that “[346 ships] was a simple projection of the then-planned size of [the] Navy in FY 1999, not a reflection of 21st century, steady-state requirements.” The most recent fleet-size analysis that was based on current and projected requirements was a 2010 Navy Force Structure Assessment (FSA) updated in 2014, that informed the existing 308-ship plan. The Navy completed a new FSA this fall, and it is expected to recommend that the 308-ship target be increased, but likely not as high as 350.

Shipyards may not risk expansion

None of the president-elect’s advisors have indicated when they expect the fleet to reach 350 ships. The current 308-ship construction plan does not reach 300 ships until 2019, and only stays above that level until 2030, after which retirements overtake construction and the fleet dips back below 300. Bryan McGrath, a retired Navy Commander and analyst at the Hudson Institute, estimates that building the fleet up to 350 ships would likely take 15 to 20 years. Both his analysis and a proposal by Jerry Hendrix, a retired Navy Captain who is now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, recognize limitations in the industrial base that builds warships for the U.S. Navy. The Trump campaign’s proposal also recognizes shrunken domestic shipbuilding capacity and an internal memo indicates the shipbuilding plan is intended in-part to help revitalize the industrial base.

If ship contracts grow during a Trump administration they shipbuilders may indeed need to reopen or expand to meet the government’s desired timeline to reach 350 ships, whatever that turns out to be. But the risk shipbuilders face is that any significant yard expansion or improvement would likely require several years, and shortly thereafter there could be either a new Congress or a new presidential administration, or both, that cuts the shipbuilding plan back below levels that would justify significant industrial base investment. Even if contracts are signed, shifting political and fiscal priorities could still curtail contracts even during the Trump administration. Shipyards may not want to risk major capital investments to substantially increase their capacity if it seems likely the next president or Congress might cancel those expensive programs.

The president-elect’s defense plan is already under intense scrutiny for its unaffordability and assumptions that budget hawks in Congress would approve spending at the levels his promised buildup would require. Warship builders are sensitive to unpredictability in long-term contracts and they are likely to guard against exposing themselves to losses from a potentially ephemeral shipbuilding plan, limiting the speed at which a radically expanded fleet could be built.

Since 1985, all U.S. major surface combatants – cruisers, destroyers, and frigates – have been built at one of two shipyards, Bath Iron Works in Maine, and Ingalls shipbuilding in Mississippi. Nuclear submarines are all built at one of two yards in Connecticut and Virginia, and all nuclear aircraft carriers are constructed at a single shipyard in Virginia. This has concentrated a lot of expertise and experience in a relatively small group of shipbuilders, increasing the sector’s sensitivity to upheavals in ship contracts.

And the risk of evaporating shipbuilding contracts is not theoretical. The Avondale shipyard in Louisiana had built ships for the Navy since World War II, but was closed in 2014 because its owners didn’t believe that the 30-year shipbuilding plan at the time promised sufficient demand to keep it profitable. Just last winter, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter ordered that the contract for Littoral Combat Ships to be cut from two hull-designs to one, likely placing one of the builders in jeopardy of closure, and to cut the total buy from 52 ships to only 40. The Zumwalt-class destroyer, the Navy’s most advanced large surface combatant, was originally intended to have 32 hulls. However, budget constraints forced the Navy to cut that buy to 24 hulls, then 16, then 7, and finally to only three, and the third Zumwalt-class hull was briefly considered for cancellation after it was already under construction.

Would it be the Fleet the Navy Needs?

Given the industrial base impediments to quickly building up the fleet with high-end surface combatants like destroyers and cruisers, some proposals advocate using smaller combatants and other creative solutions to reach 350 ships. But while these solutions may result in a larger fleet, it may not be a substantially more capable fleet to match advanced peer competitors like Russia or China.

Bryan McGrath’s proposal recognizes those shipyard challenges and instead advocates expanding acquisition of ‘upgunned’ Littoral Combat Ships (LCS). The LCS has faced fierce criticism for its lack of combat power. As a result, the Navy is moving forward with a plan to incorporate greater anti-ship and anti-air capabilities on the hull and re-designate it as a frigate.

But even though expanded LCS/frigate procurement is seemingly the most realistic strategy to increase the size of the fleet, the ‘frigatized’ LCS may still not deliver the combat capability the Navy needs in the future. The Government Accountability Office’s recent analysis of the LCS-frigate program found that the Navy performed inadequate analysis of capability requirements and alternative designs, and concluded the selected upgrades prioritized controlling costs over fully meeting combat requirements.

Naval analyst Craig Hooper has a proposal for reaching 350 ships during Trump’s term that involves reactivating some mothballed ships in the reserve fleet, reclassifying some unarmed auxiliary and support ships to count towards the size of the “battle force” (which is the number really being discussed, as opposed to the total number of ships operated or contracted by the Navy), and taking some of the Coast Guard’s newest cutters and giving them to the Navy.

He admits this is at best an interim solution to building-up the fleet while designing a more stable procurement plan for the Navy’s long-term, but that may only make the budgetary justifications to Congress harder. It would also result in a fleet that was ‘bigger’ but that has relatively little added combat capability for the number of additional hulls. The plan also does very little to meet the President-elect’s other apparent objective of injecting money back into the domestic shipbuilding industry and add back jobs.

Robert Farley recently questioned why the Trump administration would need a 350-ship navy anyway, since so much of the campaign implied a retrenchment from the global order and obligations that a large navy underwrites. But an economic boost to the shipbuilding sector aside, two of the campaign’s Asia advisors insist the larger fleet is necessary to check the growth of the Chinese military, citing estimates that the Chinese Navy may have 415 ships by 2030. Senior campaign advisor Rudy Giuliani also asserted that the United States needed a fleet that was “modern, gigantic, overwhelming and unbelievably good at conventional and asymmetric warfare” to deter a potentially aggressive China.

But the lack of specifics about either the mix of new ships or the timeline that they would be built on means it is impossible to gauge whether this still-theoretical 350-ship fleet is sufficient to that task. The U.S. Navy currently keeps about 60 percent of its fleet in the Pacific, whereas China’s fleet is almost entirely concentrated in the Western Pacific, meaning that even a 350-ship fleet could be substantially outnumbered by the Chinese fleet the incoming administration anticipates. This apparent numerical disadvantage makes focusing on the combat capabilities of those 350 ships even more important, and the challenges of achieving them even more daunting.