The U.S. Navy has dropped it goal to 306 ships fleetwide. Above, the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser Cape St. George, front, and the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers Momsen and Sterett are underway during a composite training unit exercise. (MC2 Colby K. Neal / U.S. Navy)
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The Navy has revised its overall fleet size requirement from 313 to 306 ships — a modest downscaling that reflects modified operational requirements and is not the result of the ongoing budget crisis.
One of the key changes is a reduction in the long-standing 55-ship littoral combat ship (LCS) requirement to 52 ships — a decrease, the Navy said, resulting from a lessening of the presence requirement to support U.S. Africa Command.
The changes are reflected in http://blogs.defensenews.com/saxotech-access/pdfs/usn-force-structure-13013.pdf">congressionally mandated report sent Thursday to key lawmakers.
The fleet reduction modifies the 313-ship number established in 2005. Navy leaders in recent years have called that figure "about 313 ships," reflecting several assessments that moved the number up or down, but until now have not settled into a figure officials were willing to declare.
"A 306-ship force structure represents the minimum level of capability and capacity to meet projected threats and support the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance," Navy spokeswoman Lt. Courtney Hillson said. "Our operational tempo over the past year reaffirms our need for a minimum of 306 ships. That said, we need to have the right mix of ships in terms of their capabilities that are ready to meet combatant commander demands."
The new number is not intended as a hard figure the fleet will grow to and then maintain. Rather, it is an overall combat force structure requirement, around which actual numbers are expected to rise or fall.
The fleet has 288 ships, up from a low in May 2007 of 275 ships. The count fell below 300 in August 2003.
Other key changes in the requirements from 2010, when the Navy last spelled out its fleet, are:
• A reduction of large surface combatants — cruisers and destroyers — from 94 to 88 ships, directly related to plans to move four ballistic-missile defense destroyers from the East Coast to form a forward-deployed naval force based at Rota, Spain. The Navy previously noted 10 ships were needed to meet the rotational requirement in the Mediterranean region.
• Elimination of the four-ship guided-missile submarine requirement, known as SSGNs. The Navy said in its report that should the need continue, the ships could be replaced by Virginia-class submarines "with an enhanced strike capability."
• Adding one T-AGOS surveillance ship "for sustained operations and crisis response in the Pacific."
• Adding six ships for the two newly revamped maritime prepositioning squadrons, including two mobile landing platforms and two afloat forward staging base ships.
One Capitol Hill source observed that the new fleet requirement, seen in the context of the contentious budget environment, might be more problematic than possible.
"This comes at a time when we have to start asking whether any plan in the 300-plus range is going to be viable in the budget," the source said.
"This could be the last gasp of the 300-something-ship plan, before the Navy, if it has to work under a lower top line, changes it to something clearly below 300."
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