This is Part II of a three-part commentary series.
Even in normal periods, fleet design is a complicated bureaucratic dance with budgets, internal procedures and external interventions from Congress to be negotiated.
In times of crisis or great political change, the strong preferences of presidents, their advisers and the civilian leaders or the military services can play a decisive role. Most famously, U.S. Secretary of the Navy John Lehman, at the behest of President Ronald Reagan, championed a 600-ship Navy to counter the rapidly growing Soviet fleet and threats to Europe, the Far East and elsewhere.
Read Part I: What's the purpose of President Trump's Navy?
Read Part III: Military operations other than war
Even before presidential candidate Donald Trump shined the spotlight on the Navy, the service was, of course, planning for the future.
The Navy released its latest vision statement, "A Design for Maritime Superiority," in January 2016. It resoundingly defended the ideal that the United States is a maritime nation and a premier naval power, specifically naming China and Russia as potential aggressors on the high seas. It didn't specify a target fleet size although the documents could be construed as justifying the sort of overall budget growth proposed by Trump.
Still, Congress, forcefully egged on at the time by Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., who felt the Obama administration and the Navy itself were neglecting naval strategy, mandated three independent studies to examine the future fleet. Interestingly, when completed, none of the three alternatives proposed anything like a 350-ship fleet by 2030, despite errant reports to the contrary.
Recent news reports suggesting that the alternative fleet architecture proposed by the think tank MITRE Corp. called for more than 400 ships misinterpreted the study. In fact, the MITRE authors recommend a far smaller fleet because they explicitly recognized the costs of building up to such a large number.
All three studies focus on new war-fighting concepts such as distributed maritime operations, new types of platforms including unmanned systems and new technologies including rail guns (that can repeatedly launch a projectile at more than 5,000 miles per hour). Capacity and fleet size are obviously not the same thing, despite the current focus on numbers of ships.
The point is that analysis underpinning the Navy's own vision for the future is different from that of the new president.
To date, the president has concentrated on the overall number of ships while the Navy and the congressionally mandated studies focused on war-fighting capabilities and war-fighting concepts. What is missing from the president's target of a 350-ship Navy is an underlying strategy — one that links what is proverbially called the "ways, means and ends" necessary to defend American interests on the high seas.
Working outward, the national security community, the public, and indeed America's allies and adversaries need to understand the logic underlying any historic naval buildup. A clear statement regarding the primary threats facing the U.S., the types of adversaries it will face and the nature of future conflict would help explain why the American taxpayer is investing so much national treasure in the military services.
After all, if Russia is not the enemy, and we don't need a big Navy to defeat the Islamic State group, then why spend so much?
In Part III, military operations other than war.
Simon Reich is a professor of global affairs and political science at Rutgers University. Peter Dombrowski is a professor of strategy at the Naval War College.