Nailing down how many ships the Navy needs to compete with Russia and China is only one piece of the puzzle regarding how the Navy needs to grow, according to the Association of the U.S. Navy.

In a report released Monday, the organization is calling for the service to take a holistic approach to growth — revamping not only how it builds ships, but also how it recruits and retains sailors to support a larger fleet.

“Getting to the right ship number is a whole national program — it’s got to be a national effort,” AUSN Executive Director Jason Beardsley told Navy Times. “And we have to understand that, as a people, you don’t turn on a button for the budget switch and get to the number, you have to consider that whole pipeline.”

Rather than simply expanding the fleet, the AUSN report calls for additional efforts to bolster the Navy and eliminate barriers standing in the way of a 355-ship Navy — from crafting policies to keep sailors in the Navy longer to generating interest in military service among school-aged children.

“The top-down prescription for the Navy’s current challenges is usually ‘build more ships.’ But this recommendation is too general to be practical,” the report said. “U.S. shipbuilding capacity … is determined by a multitude of factors that must work together to have an effect.”

“America is doing a lot with a relatively small Navy,” the report said. “This wears out both personnel and hardware along the way, puts America further behind each year and raises real and long-term national security concerns. This is clearly a situation that needs correcting.”

The report identifies two areas of concern. One, that a smaller Navy is a growing national security risk, and secondly, that fleet size is a symptom of larger problems the service faces.

The report lays out several potential solutions to address these concerns: reimagine the economics of the Navy; reset Navy policies to encourage long-term service; and rebuild national interest and skill sets for Navy service.

“Only by addressing these three areas can America hope to rebuild a Navy large enough to carry out the tasks we have set before it,” the report said.

The Navy currently has fewer than 300 ships in its fleet, but 355 ships is the official target set by the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday said last month during a Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments webinar that a 355 ship fleet remains his “North Star.”

Meanwhile, recent proposals have floated even larger numbers. Former Defense Secretary Mark Espers’ Battle Force 2045 plan, released last year, called for the U.S. to expand its fleet to more than 500 ships by 2045, and the Trump administration’s 30-year shipbuilding plan released in December envisioned a fleet of just over 400 ships by 2051.

“Growing pressures from Russia and China in the Pacific, Eastern Mediterranean, Black Sea and the Arctic have forced a significant uptick in the U.S. Navy’s operational tempo,” the report said. “Today, the Navy would need well above 300 ships to secure U.S. interests around the world at a normal operational tempo, and more than 400 ships by the middle of this decade to keep pace.”

But to reach a 355-ship Navy within the next 10 years, the service will require an annual budget increase of more than 4 percent, Gilday told lawmakers during a House Appropriations Committee hearing last month. The Biden administration has yet to release its fiscal 2022 defense budget, although the administration issued a topline budget of $753 billion in national security funding.

“We’re worried about what’s going to happen when we see this budget,” Beardsley said.

The question is whether the Biden administration’s budget will “protect that strategy” of a 355-ship Navy, Beardsley said.

The report says a growing fleet should serve as a mechanism for enhanced diplomacy. Specifically, the report cited opening Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti in 2001, which not only solidified the United States’ relationship with an East African partner, but also gave it a greater presence on the continent.

Meanwhile, China and Russia are also expanding their presence in Africa. China, which now has more than 50 embassies in Africa, opened its own military base in Djibouti in 2017 and has also made significant inroads in the economies of African countries, building infrastructure and gaining partial ownership of banks, media companies and other entities.

In a recent interview with The Associated Press, U.S. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the head of U.S. Africa Command, said China is now looking to establish a large navy port capable of hosting submarines or aircraft carriers on Africa’s western coast, which would enable it to base warships in the Atlantic Ocean.

“A growing Navy fleet needs to be justified as a versatile tool of diplomacy, shared economic growth and global security to the Defense Department and lawmakers who ultimately decide on the size of the Navy’s budget,” the report said.

The report also calls for an “overhaul” to the Merchant Marine Act — also known as the Jones Act — which stipulates that only U.S. ships transport cargo between U.S. ports and that crew composition includes at least 75 percent American citizens. Additionally, the merchant marine fleet is tasked with transporting cargo for the U.S. military in times of conflict.

The reports authors claim that the 1920 law has “decimated” the domestic commercial fleet and led to high shipping costs, meaning that trucking and rail industries have become more desirable alternatives.

While there were more than 1,200 U.S. flagged commercial ships in the U.S. Merchant Marine in 1950, there are now under 100, the report notes, citing comments made in 2018 by former Maritime Administration chief Mark H. Buzby, a retired Navy rear admiral. This will make it more difficult for the merchant marine vessels to assist the military in times of war, the report said.

“America must consider dramatic changes to the economic system that has depleted our commercial shipbuilding capacity and merchant navy,” the report said. “This industry serves as a vital component to our national defense and must be presented as such in order for Congress to either reactivate national investment in this industry or treat it as a defense line item in the budget.”

Sailors’ needs are critical

More attention must go toward recruitment and retention, AUSN said. To man a larger fleet, the Navy needs a steady stream of incoming recruits and sailors who serve full careers in the Navy rather than exit the service early.

“A new fleet of Navy ships can’t set sail without a crew, which means policies must be aligned to ensure vigorous recruitment, training and retention of our Sailors,” the report said. “However, some of today’s policies encourage early retirement and loss of training and must be remedied.”

In particular, AUSN advised that the Navy examine more opportunities for sailors to prosper in their preferred career fields, because a “viable career path is critical to keeping them in the service longer.” The Navy should also consider opportunities to streamline the transition from active duty to the U.S. Navy Reserve to encourage sailors to remain in service longer, according to the report.

Likewise, the Navy needs to cut back on double-pump deployments as the fleet grows, the report said. To mitigate these back-to-back deployments, the Navy must recruit more sailors “immediately,” AUSN said.

“The Navy needs to immediately ensure the proper balance of Sailors to ships, starting today,” the report said. “More Sailors should be recruited immediately to minimize the need for ‘double pump’ deployments. The number of available Sailors must be continually adjusted to ensure these more rapid deployments are not needed as the size of the fleet grows in the future.”

AUSN argues that these double-pump deployments have caused morale to suffer among sailors, and cautioned they could convince more sailors to exit the Navy.

Furthermore, AUSN claims that “America’s youth is the key to our success or failure in our effort to expand U.S. naval power.” To inspire more young people to join the Navy, AUSN proposes examining the Navy’s Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps to determine ways students can learn more about opportunities provided through military service.

Another facet of this effort is focusing on skills and vocational education, and AUSN calls for school systems, business leaders and politicians to back “skills-based, non-college education and career paths” with scholarship opportunities. AUSN announced that this year it is committing 50 percent of its annual scholarship awards to students at vocational schools.

“National and local leaders must embrace this path and treat it as a primary option for young men and women with a natural talent and interest in construction, engines, optics and other maritime trades in which America must remain competitive,” the report said.

AUSN is also urging the Navy to “recommit to licensing” mechanics, shipbuilders, electricians, heavy equipment operators, engine officers and others so they are qualified to work in the private sector upon exiting the Navy.

Beardsley said AUSN plans to send letters to members of Congress advocating the organization’s position, and also attempt to testify before lawmakers.

“We’re going to do our part. We’re going to encourage Congress to start focusing on legislation that supports that, and really targeting how we bring youth back into a spirit of service in the Navy,” Beardsley said.

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