When President Donald Trump signed the National Defense Authorization Act in December, he did more than secure a funding increase for the American Defense Department, he made the establishment of a 355 vessel U.S. Navy a part of formal national policy. That provision, however, came with a significant caveat: no one seems to know how the U.S. can afford to get there.

Rep. Rob Wittman, one of the lawmakers that championed the provision, claims the 355 ship figure was established by conducting a macroanalysis of multiple fleet strength studies and determining what size Navy the United States really needs to stay the dominant power on the globe’s waterways.

However, despite the number of calculations that went into determining the figure, lawmakers devoted a good deal less effort to finding a way to pay for it — currently projecting that, even with the uptick in defense spending, it will take the Navy longer than they’re willing to formally project to reach that goal, though they’ve tossed out the round figure of 2050 for argument’s sake. Even that date, however, is widely considered to be tentative, as it would mean defense spending would need to remain consistently at its elevated levels through eight presidential elections and twice as many congressional ones.

Even with bipartisan support for increased defense spending today, it seems unlikely that Republicans and Democrats will still be seeing eye to eye on defense in every election for the next thirty years. Policies will change, as will executive directives and national security challenges. Domestic politics will evolve, and somewhere in the midst of all of that, the Navy hopes to continue to grow.

As SOFREP reported last week, however, many lawmakers and defense officials acknowledge the importance of an expanded naval presence around the globe – particularly following a rash of tragic incidents involving American warships over the past year, many of which have been attributed to a lack of training and maintenance forced through a combination of reduced budgets and hectic operational tempo. More money, more ships, means more assets to share the burden, and hopefully, fewer errors.

Some strategies include doubling up on orders for massive expenditures like Ford Class aircraft carriers in order to reduce the per-vessel cost, and while these may yet prove effective, they ultimately don’t put a significant dent in the 78 ships required to reach the policy’s goal. Making matters worse, many of America’s current 277-ship fleet will soon reach the end of their operational lifespan, forcing new ships to fill gaps created by old ones, and extending the the timeline even further.

One new effort hopes to offset that issue in a far more cost effective manner than fielding entirely new ships: keep the old ones operational for longer than previously intended. Of course, doing so would require a significant investment in terms of upgrading the platforms to sustain continued use, but it would cost quite a bit less than building entirely new vessels.

Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62) after colliding with a merchant vessel last June. Seven sailors died and the command was relieved of duty. (Navy Photo)

At least, that’s what the Navy is now figuring about their Arleigh Burke class of guided missile destroyers. Each of America’s fleet of destroyers will see a service life extension for between 5 and 10 years, keeping each of them at sea for a total of 45.

“It’s got to be part of our overall strategy to get to 355. It’s the only way you can get there – instead of getting there in 30 years, it’s the only way you can get there in say maybe 10 to 15 years. So I think that’s something we really want to go look at,” said Vice Adm. Tom Moore. His command, NAVSEA, has spent the six months assessing life extension plans for several different classes of Navy ships.

This life extension plan will offset the rapid decline in the Navy’s total count that was set to begin in the next five years or so, allowing the Navy to reach that coveted 355-ship figure as soon as 2036. There’s just one problem, however… the total number will be right, but it’ll be the wrong kinds of ships. Although the goal is 355 ships, it breaks down beyond that initial figure to include the appropriate number of different kinds of vessels for different operations. Under this strategy, the U.S. would indeed hit 355 ships, but would still be desperately lacking specific vessels it needs to conduct operations — in particular, attack submarines.

Further, this life extension plan will only delay the ultimate retirement of these platforms, meaning the precipitous drop off currently projected for five years from now will simply begin a few years later.

As Vice Adm. Bill Merz told lawmakers in a hearing last Thursday, “you cannot use [the life extension] as a surrogate for building the new ones, or when those things tap out then we go off a cliff, and we’ll never get there.”

So although updated destroyers will remain on the high seas for a bit longer than previously anticipated, the Navy still has a long way to go in order to fund and build the 21st century fleet experts believe the United States will need. With that said, however, broader modernization efforts like those employed on America’s destroyers could see an extension in the lifespans of other vessels in the future as well. It may be possible to use extend the lives of some classes long enough to see replacements take to the seas.

“That’s just with the DDGs. We have a lot of other levers that we continue (to study).” Merz said. “Our commitment to the shipbuilding plan is aggressive growth profiles working with Congress, service life extensions – the DDGs were part of that – and then industry response. We still have a lot of ground to plow here to continue to accelerate this, and we’re excited about this.”

Feature image courtesy of the U.S. Navy