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Dreaming of a 500-Plus Ship Fleet

Reduced Defence Budgets Will Scuttle Plans for a Larger US Fleet

The plate tectonics of US naval strategy and policy significantly shifted on 16 September, during US Defense Secretary Dr Mark Esper’s virtual engagement at Rand Corporation.

During the gathering, the Pentagon’s senior civilian initially confirmed the Navy’s “current target of 355 manned ships by 2030.” He further gained his audience’s attention when he explained his vision for the Navy’s fleet is expanding, in terms of numbers and the types of fleet assets. “That is why, earlier this year, I asked the Deputy Secretary of Defense to lead a Future Naval Forces Study, tasked with assessing a wider and more ambitious range of ‘future fleet’ options.” To that end, the Navy, Marine Corps, Joint Staff, the Office of the Secretary of Defense’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) Office and the Hudson Institute conducted a comprehensive, cost and threat-informed review and analysis. The final version of the study is expected to provide one, vital template of a fleet construction plan for a 2045-era fleet.

Lt Tim Pietrack, spokesperson in the Navy Office of Information, told MON that although COVID-19 has delayed some portions of the study, the effort remains on track to be complete in late 2020 and provide analytic insights in time to inform the Program Budget Review for FY2022.

The first of three inputs to the study was released on 29 September by the Hudson Institute and is an attention-getter. The document calls for, in part, a future USN fleet of 581 battle-force ships through the addition of 80 corvettes, 99 unmanned surface vessels, 40 unmanned submarines and 27 new small amphibious ships – for starters. As significant, the Hudson plan calls for today’s 11-carrier fleet to be reduced to nine, by moving new construction to six-year centres instead of today’s four or five.

Beyond new and innovative ship- and vehicle types, the team constructing the final study will consider the prospect of a larger USN force – well beyond 355 ships. Statements by senior Trump-era officials and in documents appearing in open-source outlets suggest a future fleet of about 500 ships –when manned and unmanned platforms are accounted for – will prowl the world’s oceans. This target is slightly below the Hudson report’s 581 end-strength number.  

Yet, while technology thrusts for hull design and onboard and offboard systems advance, at the end of the day, it is about US DoD budget toplines in the near- and far term.

A major irony – and strategy-funding mismatch – is the reality that, as recently as May, Dr Esper noted that, for DoD to continue increasing readiness and modernize its forces, it needs its topline budget to grow between 3-5% annually. Yet, he remains “concerned” that the government’s $3 trillion infusion of C-19 aid to the economy, “may throw us [DoD] off that course.” He also issued a clarion call for the services to prepare for reductions in the defence budget as early as FY2022.  

While new, and in some instances, eye-watering new ship types and technologies will enter the service’s surface order of battle through the next several decades, lofty thoughts of a 500 (or so)-ship fleet in the outyears will remain dreams, dispelled by harsh economic realities. 

Marty Kauchak reporting from New Orleans for MON

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