The Defense Department’s plans for a 500-vessel Navy — far beyond even Trump’s proposal — are overly ambitious.
As a young lieutenant commander back in the 1980s, I worked on an analysis for a strategy referred to as “The 600-Ship Navy.” This was at the height of the Cold War and the pinnacle of President Ronald Reagan’s defense buildup. I was on the staff of the chief of naval operations, the service’s highest-ranking uniformed officer, and we worked long hours in the Pentagon justifying such a large number of ships.
All that work came to naught when the Soviet Union collapsed, and the Navy has been largely shrinking since. It is now down to around 297 ships, despite promises from the Donald Trump administration to increase that to at least 355, a number many analysts agree is the minimum needed for a battle force suited to America’s 21st century challenges.
Basically, the Navy does four things: Power projection (moving missiles, aircraft and Marines into position); sea control (ensuring the free movement of commercial shipping, which is responsible for 90% of global trade); strategic deterrence (submarines carrying nuclear ballistic missiles are the ultimate deterrent force); and strategic sealift (moving ammunition, supplies, medical care and other logistics to the Army and Air Force when they are forward-deployed.)
Navies do some other things, such as “showing the flag” globally and freedom-of-navigation patrols. These demonstrate the inviolability of the high seas when nations try to appropriate chunks of the ocean’s surface (as China does in the South China Sea).
Navies also function specifically as a deterrent to the fleets of the other military great powers, in this case Russia and China. It is a complex mission, and how the U.S. fleet goes about accomplishing it involves the combination of raw war-fighting capability; the tactics and techniques to use all that firepower, both offensively and defensively; and the positioning of hundreds of ships around the world.
All of those factors combine to determine the optimal fleet size. So it was notable last week when Secretary of Defense Mark Esper gave details of a fleet he saw growing to more than 500 ships, a considerable and sudden jump. How did things escalate from a “need” for 355 warships to a request for 500? And, above all, is this a sensible and achievable goal?
The secretary’s new number is the result of a long-delayed study called Battle Force 2045. Most of what the outline calls for makes sense, given the rise of China’s navy and the emergence of new technologies that will revolutionize combat at sea.
First, the Pentagon strategy recognizes the importance of nuclear-powered attack submarines as the most “survivable” part of the Navy. The new plan calls for up to 80 of them.
The most visible arm of the Navy’s strike capability, of course, are the huge nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. Here the plan envisions perhaps decreasing that number to as low as eight (but maybe staying as high as the current 11), and enhancing the role of at least six so-called light carriers. The latter are large-deck amphibious assault ships (like the Bonhomme Richard, which unfortunately burned at the pier in San Diego a few weeks ago) that can carry the new F-35B Lightning stealth fighter-attack jets.
The biggest new addition will be an investment in up to 240 unmanned ships. These drones could be programmed to do high-risk, in-close surveillance, provide “on-call” magazines of missiles, conduct minesweeping or minelaying, and undertake freedom of navigation patrols.
My beloved surface combatant force would include about 90 large ships (cruisers and destroyers) and would increase the number of smaller surface combatants such as frigates, corvettes and littoral combat ships to perhaps 70 total. This would include the new Constellation Class frigates for which contracts are just being awarded.
The new plan also calls for more combat logistics ships, up to 90, capable of refueling and rearming warships in forward combat. For the Marines, there would be around 60 ships with better ability to conduct quick strikes well behind enemy lines at sea and ashore.
Clearly, buying so many ships will stress the defense budget. Resources will have to be diverted from the Army, Air Force and the defense agencies. Some critics are rightfully concerned about the long-term sustainment costs, such as maintenance and manning.
One very senior former Department of Defense official said to me that “the Navy has sacrificed itself on the altar of forward presence,” meaning that if it didn’t insist on having so many ships forward-deployed, it could operate fewer, surge in times of trouble, and have the resources for all the unavoidable operations, training and maintenance costs. There is a certain logic to that.
The right overall number of ships is probably at the lower end of the estimates in the defense secretary’s presentation, some 350-400. More warships would rack up big bills in support costs over time, and may not be necessary if we take advantage of new technology and tactics.
There are savings to be had in unmanned systems, certainly, perhaps more in small underwater drones than in the air and on the sea’s surface. The Navy can do more to compensate for lower ship numbers than requested through offensive cyber-capability, and it will need more robust cyberdefenses.
The idea of returning the Marines to their roots as sea warriors (after a couple of decades fighting ashore in Iraq and Afghanistan) makes sense, especially if integrated with Navy SEAL and Army Special Forces capabilities. And the idea of reducing the number of nuclear carriers while focusing on the “light” carriers (which are still about two-thirds the size of a supercarrier) is a good one.
In terms of positioning, using more overseas homeports — say in Greece or Israel in the Mediterranean, or in Guam in the Pacific — to cut down transit times could allow stationing fewer ships.
It is tempting, as a retired admiral, for me to say, “Oh yes, 500 ships is terrific.” But more careful analysis needs to be done, not only on the most effective fleet size but also the impact a growing Navy will have on the budgets of the other services; on potential new operational patterns and the positioning of the fleet; and on how technology can reduce costs.
All that will have to wait until after next month’s presidential election, of course. But there are some things the Pentagon approach has correct already: The 355-ship Navy is indeed a floor; new ideas and technology are needed; and no matter how exquisite an individual ship’s war-fighting capability, quantity has a quality all its own.
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