A cornerstone of President Trump’s campaign before his 2016 election was his vow to restore what he characterized as a weakened military.

A main piece of that was his promise to build the Navy’s fleet up to 350 ships, a plan the Navy one-upped in late 2016 when it unveiled a new force structure assessment with a 355-ship goal.

But since then, the White House and the Navy have offered no strategies for achieving such long-term growth at a time when Congress appears unable to lift defense spending caps that took effect in 2013 under the law known as “sequestration.”

In 2018, Navy leaders and advocates on Capitol Hill will be searching for clarity on how to reach the goal of adding dozens of ships to the current fleet size of 279 ships.

Despite the lack of a clear-cut plan, supporters can see traces of progress on several fronts in the quest to grow the fleet. Congress sent a 2018 defense authorization bill to the White House in November that includes funding for five more ships than the president requested.

Aside from new ships, Navy advocates have discussed plans for service-life extensions, including one proposal for the Navy to extend the use of its oldest 11 cruisers instead of retiring them at the end of their 35-year hull life. The Navy’s current plans are to decommission those cruisers starting in 2020 at a rate of two per year.

Yet growing the size of the fleet does not appear to be a top priority for Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who said in 2017 that fixing the current fleet’s readiness problems must come first.

The Navy is especially skeptical of a proposal to recommission Oliver Perry-class frigates as a way of helping the fleet reach its goal. An internal chief of naval operations office memo in October warned that the Navy would have to spend at least $432 million per resurrected ship over the course of a decade of service

Geoff is the editor of Navy Times, but he still loves writing stories. He covered Iraq and Afghanistan extensively and was a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. He welcomes any and all kinds of tips at geoffz@militarytimes.com.

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