One of Trump’s most significant platforms in the 2016 presidential election was revitalizing the nation’s poorly maintained defense apparatus and returning it a state of strategic and tactical readiness needed to face near-peer, nation level opposition from the likes of China and Russia. Among the promises he made to that effect were increasing defense spending (which he followed through on) and growing the U.S. Navy to a massive 355-ship force, up from the current deployable force of 293.
Since Trump’s election, numerous defense officials have weighed in on whether or not it’s even possible to grow the force by so much, so quickly; and while the directive to reach 355 ships has been signed into law and made formal policy, it is still hard to get a straight answer as to whether this mandated rapid growth is being taken seriously. According to most, it is possible, but it would require a significant uptick in resources and funding devoted to America’s ship-building enterprise; and may even require keeping some older ships well past their retirement dates.
“[Three hundred and fifty-five ships] is stated as national policy,” U.S. Navy Secretary Thomas Modly told the USNI Defense Forum on Dec. 5. “It was also the president’s goal during the election. We have a goal of 355, we don’t have a plan for 355. We need to have a plan, and if it’s not 355, what’s it going to be and what’s it going to look like?”
Modly seemed to agree with the assessment that the Navy can’t reach its goal under the current financial model, but seemed none-the-less eager to make the President’s policy a reality.
“We ought to be lobbying for that and making a case for it and arguing in the halls of the Pentagon for a bigger share of the budget if that’s what is required,” Modly said.
However, while the Trump administration and senior Navy officials discuss ways to grow the fleet, the reality of America’s existing naval force doesn’t seem to support the effort. And while Modly championed the idea of growth earlier this month, the Defense Department submitted a plan to the White House that would see the Navy retiring a number of large surface vessels years before the expected end of their operational shelf lives. This new plan calls for the early retirement of 13 Ticonderoga-class cruisers and a 40% cut to the production of new Arleigh Burke class guided missile destroyers in the next few years. This move would actually shrink the fleet from 293 ships down to 287.
The Defense Department doesn’t discuss ongoing budgetary talks. This leaves us with a few quotes and common sense to work with to determine what’s driving the Navy to propose shrinking, while the Trump administration is mandating growth — and unsurprisingly, it seems to come down to dollars and cents.
“If what you are reporting is true, this is a sign of the tension between the grand desires for a much larger fleet and the modest resources being applied to the problem,” explained Bryan McGrath, a retired destroyer captain and analyst with the defense consultancy The Ferrybridge Group. “There simply is no way to grow the fleet as it is currently architected, while maintaining the current fleet at a high state of readiness with the given resources.”
If the Pentagon is serious about reaching President Trump’s goal of a 355-ship navy, the effort should have started years ago and been well funded throughout. Now, in order to reach that goal, the Navy is considering changing its definition of the word “ship” to field as many vessels as possible. Still, other financial concerns remain regarding the construction of new vessels and the maintenance of old ones. Those cruisers the DoD hopes to retire early aren’t on the chopping block because the Navy doesn’t want them, but rather because they’ve become increasingly problematic (and expensive) to run.
Cruisers are the largest surface combatants in the U.S. Navy and maintain 26 more vertical launch tubes than the smaller Arleigh Burke class guided missile destroyers. Among their roles in the Navy’s strategy is serving as the primary air defense ship for carrier strike groups; but the problem is… they’re old and they require frequent maintenance to their long-dated systems. With some of these ships even direr issues have surfaced over the years, including potentially catastrophic ones like cracks in ships’ hulls.
The Navy simply doesn’t want to keep dumping huge sums of money into keeping a relatively small number of large vessels in the water, especially amid a push for growth. It seems possible that the Navy sees doing away with these cruisers and shrinking its orders for destroyers as a means to invest more heavily in smaller ships that could be launched toward meeting that 355-ship goal.
That approach, however, begs hard questions about the makeup of the surface fleet: Hitting an imaginary number may be important, but ensuring you have the right kinds of vessels to conduct specific operations around the world is just as important a consideration as total fleet size is.