When President Trump signed the National Defense Authorization Bill back in December, he not only put the largest defense budget in history into action, he also made the building of a “355 ship Navy” part of the formal national policy. That provision, championed by Senate Seapower Subcommittee Chairman Roger Wicker and Rep. Rob Wittman, mandated that the Navy grow by a whopping 78 ships as quickly as is “practical.”
“With his signature, President Trump has confirmed the United States’ resolve to meet the growing needs of our U.S. Navy,” Wicker said in a statement. “Building up our nation’s fleet is essential to protecting our national security and projecting American power around the globe.”
Unfortunately, while that provision was heavy on “resolve,” it was light on practicality. Although the Navy took the number and marched with it, even internal, and arguably optimistic projections don’t foresee reaching that 355 number until well into the 2050s – further than the Navy is willing to even do budget projections for.
“This is a helpful move, if largely symbolic,” said Bryan McGrath, a retired destroyer captain and consultant with The Ferrybridge Group, at the time.
In the months since, some have come to question America’s real commitment to that figure, as projections show a significant increase in ship production in the coming years, followed by a sharp downturn that will coalesce with a number of Navy ships reaching the end of their operational service life. In other words, the fleet will grow in the short term, before shrinking again – and lawmakers are counting on securing funds to offset that trend sometime in the future.
“It’s simply a number thrown out there. I think they said they hope to achieve a 355-ship navy by what is it, the 2050s, somewhere way off in the distance,” said Rep. Adam Smith, (D-Wash.), the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee.
“We can barely predict what will happen in two months now, really, 2050 you’re going to tell me how many ships we’re going to have, based on everything going on.”
Even Senator Roger Wicker, who played a vital role in having the provision included in the 2018 NDAA has since been critical of the Navy’s plan to reach 355 ships – calling the timeline, which is loosely slated out to 2050, “unacceptable.”
“The budget request was good, but it wasn’t good enough,” Wicker said in March. “The Navy’s 2019 budget request is $22 billion for 10 new ships but we wanted them to come up with 26 billion for 14 new ships.”
According to Wicker, the Navy will reach 326 ships by around 2023, but the numbers will begin to drop again from there.
“Suddenly there’s a dip,” Wicker said. “We don’t like the dip.”
However, his congressional cohort in the legislative process for the NDAA, Rep. Rob Wittman, warned lawmakers and defense officials away from questioning the 355 ship figure on Wednesday, suggesting that saying such a goal was either impractical under current funding models or too lofty in general could compromise the initiative to resolve these spending issues.
“I think if you get ambivalent about the number, it becomes difficult to communicate,” he explained. “You have to say 355 is the number.”
According to Wittman, the number was determined through a macro-analysis of multiple fleet strength studies, and that wavering from the number in professional discussion could hamper progress toward securing the necessary funding.
“This wasn’t just a number just a number that was pulled out of the air, this was an objectively reached number, and we think that ought to be the central part of the discussion,” Wittman said. “I think the Navy needs to be unambivalent about that number.”
It would seem, then, that Wittman, like many other lawmakers and Navy officials, is concerned about how financially likely a 355 ship Navy really could be. Using buzzwords in politics and policy making has proven effective, which is why hearing the same phrases repeated by pundits from both parties has become such a commonplace practice in interviews, so Wittman might be right about the power of perception when it comes to matching Trump’s promise to the nation’s pocket book.
However, even Wittman recognizes that getting caught up in the numbers can distract the nation from fielding the right equipment at the right time.
I would argue the Navy needs to be talking about the number, and what’s the composition of the number,” Wittman said. “What types of ships do you build? What’s the next generation of ships? What are the capabilities on board those ships? How do you mate those with unmanned systems?”
“As much as it sounds great to have all these additional resources, the demand in the short-term really exceeds the resources, so it’s really about trading priorities and say, what things can we wait a little bit longer to do,” Wittman said.
Image courtesy of the U.S. Navy