Along the way to the White House, President Donald Trump made a number of big promises when it came to national defense. Among them were a dramatic increase in defense spending aimed at offsetting the damage done by budget cuts and sequestration, and in a more physical sense, expanding America’s Navy to include a massive 355 ships.
Despite a number of hurdles and delays, the president seems to have made good (or at least, made a start) on the former, but the latter is beginning to look increasingly unlikely, even after passing the largest defense budget in history. Building massive warships and equipping them with state of the art technology is an extremely expensive endeavor, and as America’s trifles with the USS Gerald R. Ford have demonstrated, they tend to run over budget, past deadlines, and once completed… still may not even work.
Under current spending projections, the Navy does expect to see a significant increase in their seaward presence in the very short term. The latest budget proposals circulating Washington show more than 40 new vessels being added to America’s warship roster within the coming five years, which combined with service-life extension programs aimed at keeping older ships in service longer, will swell the overall fleet significantly.
Based on those projections, America’s current Navy of 280 vessels will grow to 326 by the end of 2023 – meaning an overall increase of 46 operational ships in an incredibly short span of time. Of course, that much more hardware will require a significant influx of personnel as well, which accounts for one of the branch’s largest expenditures, but advances in shipboard automation may help to offset some of that cost. Nonetheless, the Navy expects to need to recruit and train some 17,000 additional sailors to meet the staffing needs presented by this expansion.
“I think the number we identified matches the ownership costs that we identified,” Rear Adm. Brian Luther, deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for budget, said in his rollout of the Navy’s FY19 budget.
“So we grow in lead of some of the equipment because we have to train people ahead of when the ship arrives. It was a disciplined approach to ensure we didn’t procure a ship without people, we didn’t procure a ship without armament, we didn’t procure a ship without armament. So it’s a very balanced and disciplined approach.”
With that kind of rapid growth, it seems totally reasonable to suspect that Trump’s 355 ship Navy is well within our grasp, perhaps not during his presidency, but potentially soon thereafter. Reality, however, is rarely so clean cut, and it seems far more likely that the Navy will see a sharp drop off of operational ship numbers soon after reaching that 326 ship figure, thanks to many ships reaching the ends of their service lives. Because of that, even the optimistic projection of Luther, the Navy won’t reach the much touted 355 figure until sometime in the 2050s.
In fact, while the Navy’s ship count will reach a new high in 2023, it will begin to draw down again in 2024 under the existing plan. A slew of ships are expected to leave service throughout the latter half of the 2020s, including the last of the Los Angeles-class submarines and potentially a number of the force’s large surface combatants like cruisers and older destroyers.
That isn’t to say that Trump’s influx of defense spending has had no effect. The projections see the United States Navy adding ten more ships than anticipated under the Obama’s administration’s plans, which aimed for a 308 ship Navy by 2020. The Navy has acknowledged that it’s possible to reach 355 ships in the 2050s, but their own projections actually top out with 342 in the year 2039. The reason they don’t keep running the numbers beyond that is simple: a whole lot can change between now and then.
If tensions in the Pacific continue to simmer as they have, the U.S. Navy will likely expand at the rate projected, though if war, particularly with a near-peer or peer level opponent like China were to arise, the Navy’s expansion would likely be limited only by the workload America’s shipbuilding industry is capable of sustaining. However, if tensions reduce, it’s likely politics within the United States will mandate a reduction in spending, and place that lofty figure of 355 ships even further out.
Will the United States ever field a 355 ship Navy? Maybe, but it’s more likely to be in our children’s day, rather than our own.
Image courtesy of the U.S. Navy