National Security & Defense

Achieving a 355-Ship Navy ‘Before This Decade Is Out’

From right: Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyers USS Porter, USS Donald Cook, USS Carney, and USS Ross moored in Rota, Spain, June 2017. (Mass Communication Specialist Third Class Robert S. Price)
The Navy’s 30-year shipbuilding plan falls short of the strategic imperative.

In 1961 President John F. Kennedy challenged the nation with a great goal: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth.”

“Before this decade is out.”

This nation used to be able to do great things in a short period of time, when it thought it was important. This past week the U.S. Navy, with its 30-year shipbuilding plan, fell short of the standard of national greatness. To be sure, the plan has some strong points. Its adds 54 ships to the battle force over the next five fiscal years, raising the battle force from its present 280 ships to 324. This will take some strain off the fleet as it attempts to defend the nation’s vital national interests by maintaining approximately 108 ships forward deployed at all times, but it falls far short of the 355 ships required to meet the nation’s minimum requirements. In addition, the plan envisions a massive falloff in the ship count a decade from now, during the 2025–35 “maximum danger” era, and does not achieve the statutory goal of 355 ships until the 2050s. The plan fails due to an abundance of caution and a lack of adherence to the nation’s strategic goal of achieving a balance between capabilities and capacity.

There is a lot of hand-wringing in the 30-year plan about stable funding lines for ship construction and a decline in the nation’s shipbuilding capacity. Navy leaders rightly call out political leaders for their overreliance on continuing resolutions to support the military, and the harmful effects of inconsistent funding on shipbuilding practices, but it is not the Department of the Navy’s job to plan for such occurrences, no matter their likelihood. Naval leaders ought instead to plan for regular order and then testify openly and critically when it breaks down. Rather than a gathering of gallant sailors in a budgetary planning effort, we observe Churchill’s admonition, “the sum of their fears,” in this 30-year plan.

There are also concerns about the defense industrial base, specifically the nation’s shipbuilding capacity. The 30-year plan reports that 14 shipyards have closed over the past generation, leaving only a handful, and three others have shifted from defense to commercial shipbuilding. From this vantage, Navy leaders express concern that the industrial base is incapable of ramping up production quickly, but the question then becomes: Whose fault is that? For nearly 30 years, the Department of Defense has quietly encouraged the defense sector to seek economies and consolidate, turning a blind eye to the strategic implications of defense corporate mergers. Rather than stimulating industrial expansion, as the president himself has called for, this plan attempts to manage shipbuilding within current margins, bypassing a strategic opportunity to help guide the reexpansion of the industrial base.

Perhaps the greatest cause for disappointment within the 30-year plan is its mistaken emphasis. Despite language within the President’s National Security Strategy and the Secretary of Defense’s National Defense Strategy that directs the services to pursue a balance between high-end (and expensive) cutting-edge capabilities and expanded capacities (growth in platform numbers), the initial ship procurements over the next five years are largely directed at high-end platforms such as the Arleigh Burke–class destroyers, procuring them at a rate of three a year. Meanwhile, low-end platforms such as littoral combat ships and the new guided-missile frigate, where the Navy has the easiest path to expand its numbers, are bought in lots of one and two ships during the same time period. If the Navy were to subtract one of its destroyers and add two frigates to its shipbuilding plan in its place (a less expensive option), resulting in four low-end combatants bought per year, the Navy could expand its fleet more quickly.

Navy leaders express concern that the industrial base is incapable of ramping up production quickly, but the question then becomes: Whose fault is that?

The Navy, however, says that it needs ever more of the high-end ships, shifting its programmed goal for large surface combatants (cruisers and destroyers) from 88 to 104 within its overall 355-ship construct while holding its small surface combatant (littoral combat ships and frigates) steady at 52. This actually runs counter to historical fleet architectures, which place greater emphasis on small combatants for naval-presence, anti-submarine, anti-surface, and convoy-escort missions. If anything, the Navy should revert to its 88-ship large surface combatant inventory goal and expand its small surface combatant total to around 75 ships, which would be in keeping with historical norms. If the Navy pursued this route aggressively, it could achieve and hold a 355-ship inventory before another decade is out.

That it is not, is troubling. While it is true that the Navy recognizes that 355 ships represents the “Navy the nation needs,” it does not seem aware that it needs it now. Both the National Security Strategy and the National Defense Strategy recognize that the nation is once again in an era of great-power competition, much as it was when Kennedy issued his moon-landing challenge. We actually have been in a new Cold War for some time, but eight years of “lead from behind” facile foreign policy sought to mask this condition. The bottom line is that China and Russia, sensing weakness and possible American decline, have cast their lots and are charging hard to establish authoritarian spheres of influence in Europe and Asia and the waters that surround them, and they have shipbuilding plans of their own. Russia plans to dramatically improve the capabilities of its navy, and China plans for a large-capacity, 500-ship fleet. The decade spanning the years 2025 to 2035 represents a new period of maximum danger, when rising competitors are most likely to press for their grand strategic goals and create authoritarian spheres on their borders, fracturing the world. The United States’ only hope to sustain its position of leadership within the broader global economic and mutual-security system lies in a commitment to achieving the right balance between capabilities and capacity within a 355-ship navy “before this decade is out.”

Jerry Hendrix is a retired U.S. Navy captain, an award-winning naval historian, and a vice president with the Telemus Group, a national-security consultancy.

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