WASHINGTON – The chief of naval operations remains firm that the fiscal 2022 budget request is aligned with the U.S. Navy’s future fleet design plans, which were studied and wargamed in the Future Naval Force Study effort last year, even as lawmakers question the proposal.

Adm. Mike Gilday said the study provided the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps the clearest vision yet of what assets they’ll need to deter or win a future fight, and he stands by the FY22 budget request as supporting that vision.

Though lawmakers tend to focus on the size of the naval fleet – and achieving a 355-ship fleet is now law – Gilday said “the analysis really gave us a sense, beyond the numbers, what the composition of the fleet needs to be in order to effectively deter and fight, and that really comes down to joint capabilities that the Navy would contribute to a joint fight.”

In that sense, he said the FY22 budget supports where the Navy can most effectively and uniquely contribute to a major joint force operation.

“When you take a look at the composition of the [future] fleet, it’s heavily reliant, as an example, on submarines. And right now, our shipbuilding budget, 48 percent of it is dedicated to undersea warfare and new submarines in the Virginia and Columbia class,” he said during a speech at the Navy League’s annual Sea Air Space 2021, in a virtual prequel event ahead of the live conference next month.

Gilday also highlighted naval aviation, which received significant funding to build new aircraft carriers, keep existing ones ready and modernized, and invest in a blend of fourth- and fifth-generation aircraft with more sophisticated and long-range weapons.

“We do have an investment strategy that incrementally gets us to a more capable, a more lethal fleet – but not necessarily a bigger fleet unless we saw a rise in the topline,” he said.

The CNO said the Navy is pursuing the fleet it wants in the short term: by 2025, all Block III and IV Virginia-class attack submarines will be delivered and fielded with more lethal and longer-range weapons than their predecessors; the surface navy will have more capable Flight III Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, will be on the cusp of fielding the first Constellation-class frigate and will have the first hypersonic weapon aboard a Zumwalt-class destroyer; and half the air wings will have reached the fourth-/fifth-generation mix, among other improvements.

However, a big factor in the analysis was the Navy’s distributed maritime operations concept, which Gilday said the service has been working on for the last six years and fits into the joint warfighting concept for major combat operations. Distributed maritime operations would allow the Navy to attack an adversary from many directions and in multiple domains. When combined with the Marines’ expeditionary advanced base operations concept, one that would enable small groups of Marines to conduct sea control and sea denial from islands and temporary shore bases, the approach creates “a multi-pronged approach to an adversary. But, in order to exercise that concept as we have envisioned it, we need numbers. We need numbers to be able to distribute the fleet across a very big area in the Pacific. So that’s part of the challenge.”

Gilday reiterated his previous comments that the Navy today can afford a fleet of about 300 ships, and its buying power is only shrinking. The Pentagon and Congress will need to allot the Navy more money if they want to see a larger fleet, he said.

“If our topline stays the same or decreases, we’re going to see a declining fleet in terms of capacity. If we take a look at the fact that 60 percent of our budget is for manpower, for operations and for maintenance, and that those costs are increasing on an annual basis at about almost two and a half percent above inflation, that’s going to eat away at our ability to grow capacity that will ever approach above 300 ships, based on how we’re funded right now,” he said.

Though 355 ships is the law of the land, a June long-range shipbuilding plan showed a fleet as small as 321 ships or as a large as 372 ships in the outyears, rather than picking a single number to aim for.

“The intent was to present a range; 355 kind of falls smack in the middle, and of course that’s the law, and I still think that 355 is a good target. But the reality is that we can’t really afford to have a navy bigger than one we can sustain given the resources that we receive. So based on our current budget, I believe the analysis shows that we can afford a fleet of about 300 ships. So that includes the manning, the training, the equipping, the supply parts, the ammunition, the training days, the flying hours, all of that that yields a fleet that’s ready to go to sea today and deter a China, deter a Russia from any malign activity.”

Gilday said the FY22 budget proposal forced him to pick between training and readiness for today’s fleet, modernization to develop and field new capabilities to stay ahead of adversaries, and increased capacity.

“It’s difficult to keep an even balance across all three of them, but I tended to prioritize current readiness and training over the three,” Gilday said.

The Navy sought to free up funds to pay for this readiness – and for modest modernization and fleet growth – by divesting older and less useful platforms, including seven cruisers. That proposal has not sat well with lawmakers, who worry about capacity shrinking in the near term even as experts worry that China could be eyeing an invasion of Taiwan this decade.

Gilday has continued to stand by this request to divest the cruisers despite pushback from lawmakers. He said the cruisers are an average of 32 years old and are in poor material condition. Last year’s deployment of cruiser Vella Gulf with the Dwight D. Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group saw the ship come back to its homeport in Norfolk, Va., twice in the early weeks of the deployment for emergency repairs.

“When we tried to deploy a ship most recently and had to bring it back twice because of fuel tank cracks is an example of something we just couldn’t predict but we have to react to, and it does have an impact on reliability – and we need to be able to provide the secretary of defense and the president reliable assets out there that they can count on to do the nation’s business,” he said.

The poor material condition, plus the cost to keep them operating – $5 billion over five years – and the lack of lethality compared to newer ships – some have an analog SPY-1A radar, others have an early SPY-1B radar that is still approaching obsolescence and struggles to see today’s threats that have faster speeds and different flight profiles compared to targets of past decades – made for an easy decision for Gilday.

Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs, and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.

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