On Wednesday the U.S. vice chief of naval operations, Admiral Bill Moran, told a defense conference that the Navy would need about $150 billion over the next seven years to “jump start” its future shipbuilding plans for a roughly 350-ship fleet. To put this in perspective, this “jump start” would effectively more than double the Navy’s current annual shipbuilding budget, which is historically about $15-16 billion per year.
This extraordinary shipbuilding supplement would notionally build an additional 30 ships over the seven years of the “jump start,” potentially bringing the fleet close to 340 ships by the end of the 2020s. The political challenges of appropriating that additional funding aside, however, there is significant doubt that the country’s major shipbuilders would be able to meet such an accelerated production schedule.
In December, both the Navy and the top shipbuilders sounded confident about building a 350-ship fleet in interviews with Reuters. Admiral John Richardson, the chief of naval operations, said building the fleet would be “remarkably easy,” so long as the expanded fleet was funded. The heads of some shipbuilders claimed that expanding the shipyards’ workforce to build the fleet was easier and faster than appropriating the money to do it.
Donald Trump’s election was followed by widespread optimism that the Navy would get a bigger fleet. During the campaign, then-candidate Trump promised to build a 350-ship Navy. Shortly after the election the Navy released a new Force Structure Assessment (FSA) asserting that the minimum fleet needed to meet its mission requirements was 355 ships.
But there isn’t yet a plan to build 350 (or 355) ships. The Navy’s updated FSA simply establishes the requirement, or justification, for a 355-ship fleet but it does not lay out a plan for building it. Based on current defense strategy, mission requirements, and anticipated threats, the Assessment is independent of either budgetary or shipbuilding factors. The FSA will inform the Navy’s 2018 30-year Shipbuilding Plan, which will specify the type and quantities of ships it intends to build over the next three decades.
But the Navy’s Shipbuilding Plans do not closely analyze shipyard capacity either. This makes sense to a point, given the decades-long time horizon they consider. But new reporting from Reuters shows that the shipbuilding industry’s December optimism that it could easily expand capacity to meet the demands of building a 350-ship fleet was exaggerated.
Industry experts noted that it can take five to seven years before a new hire is considered a proficient shipbuilder. That means that even if yards began extra hiring today (which they won’t, until funding is appropriated), a significant share of the additional workforce that the major shipyards would need to build those additional 30 ships Moran outlined would not be adequately proficient until nearly the end of the “jump start.”
Yards have already strained to ramp up capacity on a much smaller scale, resulting in lower-quality work and missed deadlines. DefenseNews recently reported that delivery and commissioning of the Navy’s newest Virginia-class submarine will be delayed due to problems that emerged during its sea trials in early March. This is after already missing its originally scheduled delivery last summer.
They explained that a major factor in the delays was the decision to increase production from one submarine per year to two in 2011. This strained the capacity of suppliers and contractors, and required hiring new, less experienced workers that both slowed down the pace of production and increased the amount of re-work to correct mistakes and work that did not meet quality standards.
According to Moran, the Navy wants to continue building two Virginia-class submarines a year when production starts on the new Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine. The larger, more complex submarine will mean that builders will effectively need to double their production capacity. This means that the problems brought on by the earlier production increase will be compounded, possibly causing cascading delays for both submarine classes.
Aircraft carriers are another example of the capacity problem. The Navy will again have 11 active aircraft carriers when the Gerald R. Ford is commissioned this year, more than a year late. The Navy’s FSA and Trump have called for maintaining 12 aircraft carriers as part of the expanded fleet. Even though the Ford’s follow-on, the John F. Kennedy, has been under construction since 2011, it too has seen its expected completion delayed from 2018 to 2020.
Despite this progress on the new Ford-class, albeit delayed, the Congressional Research Service still estimates that the Navy will not have a sustained 12-carrier force until at least 2030. Moran said that the Navy wants to speed up carrier construction from five years to four, and possibly even three. Even if progress towards that goal can be made, the massive scale of aircraft carrier construction almost certainly means that it will rob the yards building submarines and destroyers of the workforce and supplies needed to increase their own production. This could make it hard to just maintain, much less increase, the overall size of the fleet.
There are currently 275 ships in the Navy’s Battle Force. Officials are confident that the Navy’s previous force structure goal of 308 ships will be reached by 2021 if the contracts planned for FY2017 are funded by Congress. However, the Navy only thinks it can maintain that fleet size for less than a decade. By the end of the 2020s, ships built during the last major fleet expansion, under the Reagan administration, will begin to be retired faster than new ones can replace them.
Without a much bigger workforce, which does not yet exist and will require years to build up, it seems unlikely that the shipbuilding industry would be able to deliver all 30 additional ships the Navy envisions for its “jump start” in seven years. Taken together with the challenges shipbuilders are already facing trying to expand production, that $150 billion, yet to be either requested or appropriated, may be less about the size of the fleet the Navy will have in the 2020s than having the workforce it will need to keep the fleet above 300 ships in the 2030s, much less reach 350.