WASHINGTON — Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday mused about a day when the U.S. Navy might be able to buy a dozen or more ships each year. The Navy would be given the funding levels, and the surface ship industrial base would have grown the capacity, to support building three destroyers a year, two or three frigates a year, an amphibious transport dock every other year, and a larger number of supply ships.

But as he made clear in his remarks this week, that day is not today.

The service continues to limit its spending request and its long-term fleet development plans based on expected funding levels and the current industrial base capacity, leading to a fleet size that Gilday said “nobody likes.”

The Navy’s fiscal 2023 request asks for nine new ships and sets the fleet on a path to decline from 298 ships today to 280 in 2027. A 30-year shipbuilding plan released April 20 lays out three paths — and the route based on continuing current funding levels only gets the Navy to a fleet of about 320 ships by 2045, compared to the congressionally mandated 355 ships.

“That’s not to say that we’re not fighting for money for more capacity. But when we took a look at the top line that we had for ‘23 … our bumper sticker was ‘We’re not going to have a Navy bigger than we can sustain,’ ” Gilday said April 28 at a virtual event co-hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the U.S. Naval Institute, both private organizations.

Certainly decommissionings are contributing to the decline in fleet size. Gilday said each ship was evaluated on its ability to contribute to a high-end fight against China, with those not making the cut proposed for early decommissioning so the Navy can reinvest money toward missiles and technology to make the fleet more lethal within in the next five years.

In the end, the Navy proposed decommissioning all its Freedom-variant littoral combat ships, its eight- and nine-year-old expeditionary transfer docks, four of its amphibious dock landing ships, and one Ticonderoga-class cruiser not yet at the end of its planned service life.

“That will be a debate, and it ought to be a debate on the Hill with respect to: if all of those ships retire, when they might retire, what might be bought back should DoD get a higher top line, should it be those ships, should it be another capability within the Department of Defense,” Gilday said.

“Nobody likes the numbers with respect to capacity,” he acknowledged in response to congressional feedback on his budget proposal, “but they know that if we flip that model and we make capacity king, we’re going to have to pay for those ships somehow, and it’s going to come out of manpower, ammunition.”

Gilday later said he’s unhappy with the current capacity levels of any given ship class and the Navy’s inability to meet combatant commanders’ demands for those ships. In strategic joint-force mission areas like long-range fires, “I am happy to compete with the other services, and may the best capabilities win in terms of what we’re going to put our money against in a constrained budget environment.” But decisions on where to spend savings are out of his hands.

Decades later

According to the long-range shipbuilding plan, the Navy could afford to build a fleet of 318 to 322 ships in 2045, based on two different scenarios tied to today’s funding levels. The Navy stuck to current funding levels because it’s unclear if the service will see real growth in future budgets.

If the service could secure an additional $75 billion beyond the current five-year budgeting window — in other words, $75 billion in additional funds spread across 2028 through the 2040s — it could increase that fleet size to 363 manned ships by 2045. Any of the scenarios would be supplemented by dozens or even hundreds of unmanned platforms on and under the sea.

Still, that more aggressive spending plan doesn’t get the Navy where it wants to be.

The outgoing Trump administration in late 2020 offered up a Battle Force 2045 plan that was untethered to fiscal realities but outlined the fleet size and composition that a significant body of analytical work cited as necessary to deter or defeat China in a fight.

That plan called for as many as 420 manned ships, as well as more than 500 total vessels when either unmanned or minimally manned ships are included. This plan would have reached the congressionally mandated 355-ship level by 2035.

Even the Navy’s higher-cost alternative only gets to 355 ships in 2043 and maxes out at 367, which is short of the last major force structure analysis. The Navy notes in its FY23 long-range shipbuilding plan that this loftier goal requires more funding but is still self-limited based on the expected industrial base capacity. That industry forecast itself is based on existing capacity and reasonable expectations of growth.

Gilday previously said the 2022 National Defense Strategy — of which a classified version was presented to lawmakers, but is unavailable to the public — would inform another force structure assessment the Navy and Marine Corps will conduct this year, which will inform the FY24 budget request and the next long-range shipbuilding plan.

Gilday has not speculated on the results of the new force structure assessment, but he has said the fleet must be bigger, though not at the expense of readiness.

“Although we can’t have a Navy bigger than the one we can afford, capacity does yield capability. You can only get so much capability out of 296 ships, physically,” he told Defense News. “We do need a bigger Navy, and you can’t just talk about capabilities without talking about size.”

In his remarks this week, he said achieving a larger fleet not only involves convincing the Pentagon and Congress to provide more money for more ships per year, but also securing higher funding levels to create industrial stability and incentives so companies invest in their workforce and facilities.

He noted the submarine-industrial base has had its share of challenges after the Navy stopped buying subs in the 1990s and then had to crawl its way back to building one per year, then two per year later.

Across the next 20 years, submarine builders and suppliers “have a high degree of confidence that we’re going to be in a cadence of two, if not three, attack boats a year plus an SSBN [nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine],” Gilday said at the CSIS event. “So with respect to the industrial base and the investments that they have to make in a workforce and also in infrastructure, they can count on stability and predictability like no other element in the entire Department of Defense. That’s where we need to go with surface ships.”

“I would like to get to a place where — and it’s definitely achievable — where we have three destroyers in the budget a year. I’d like to be in a place where we have two to three frigates a year,” Gilday added. “I think if we get more top line — 1% to 2% top-line [growth] — we can have frigates in that kind of cadence. Supply ships the same way. Potentially LPDs on two-year centers, where we’re funding one every other year.”

The argument for higher and stable funding levels resonates with many lawmakers, he said, but it hasn’t translated to an annual budget process that supports larger quantities of ship acquisitions.

“That kind of stability and predictability is good for the Navy, it’s good for the nation, it’s certainly good for the industrial base,” Gilday said.

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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