In preserving its dominance over the sea, the United States Navy is determined to expand its future fleet of over 350 manned ships and about 150 unmanned ships.

In his update on the Navigation Plan (NAVPLAN), Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Mike Gilday stated that the plan for the 2040s and beyond will focus on “the need to address long-term strategic competition with China and keep a military advantage against Russia.”

Reuters reported that the Navy’s forecasted fleet numbers slightly increased from a 2021 Navy long-range shipbuilding plan, which had a range of 321 to 372 manned ships and 77 to 140 large unmanned vessels.

Gilday, meantime, has refuted the charges of some members of Congress, claiming that the growth of ships over the past 20 years has been gradual.

“[The pace is] realistic in terms of where we are right now, let’s say in terms of capacity and capabilities and where we need to get. I think it’s going to take a couple of decades to get us to yield that hybrid fleet that we think that we ultimately need in order to fight the way we think we want to fight, which is in a distributed manner, leveraging networking like [Joint All-Domain Command and Control] and the effort that we have ongoing with [Project Overmatch],” Gilday told reporters on Tuesday.

USS Gerald R. Ford CVN 78
A file photo of USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) in Newport News, Virginia, 2016. (Image source: U.S. Navy/Reuters)

He continued: “We don’t have the capacity in the industrial base to pump out that number of ships in a short period of time. It’s going to take a couple of decades really to deliver, to mature the fleet in a manner where you get that composition that you’re looking for, over time, that gives you the kind of power that you need to fight in the distributed way.”

NAVPLAN 2022

The Navigation Plan outlines the US Navy’s future objectives for developing, sustaining, training, and equipping a formidable naval force that would deepen its strategic partnerships as well as “deter conflict, and if called upon, help win the Nation’s wars.”

To preserve combat credibility in increasingly disputed seas, it will implement six force design imperatives starting in 2022: enhance distance, leverage deception, harden defense, boost distribution, ensure delivery, and generate decision advantage.

“We must move decisively to modernize U.S. naval power as we maintain readiness and a forward posture that keeps America and our Allies safe and prosperous,” said Gilday. “The Navy is adopting a more continuous, iterative force design process to focus our modernization efforts and accelerate the capabilities we need to maintain our edge in this critical decade and beyond.”

The CNO also stressed the value of seapower, highlighting how a strong navy has repeatedly shown to sustain peace and prosperity on a global scale.

The 2045 fleet will also promote using ships that can accommodate more powerful weapon systems and sensors that can be quickly updated as technology advances.

“The decisions and investments we make this decade will shape the maritime balance of power for the rest of this century. We can accept nothing less than success,” he added.

A photo of USS Momsen (DDG 92), a guided-missile destroyer taken in the Gulf of Oman on July 13. (Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Lily Gebauer/US Naval Forces Central Command/US 5th Fleet)

In its proposed fiscal year 2023 budget, the Navy requested $27.9 billion for the shipbuilding of eight new ships, including two Virginia class attack submarines, two Arleigh Burke destroyers, and one Constellation frigate. It has 298 ships as part of its “battle force” alone.

Unmanned ship technology

While the Navy is still working on defining what the unmanned ships will look like, Gilday said that the service-tested pairing of the large unmanned surface ships equipped with guided-missile destroyers has already kickstarted during the Rim of the Pacific 2022 exercise and “will continue to expand in the near future.”

“I’d like to be in a position in the mid to late 2020s where we’re deploying a large unmanned [surface vehicle] with a carrier strike group,” Gilday said. “The future idea with large unmanned is that that be a missile carrier.”

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The admiral said at the WEST 2022 conference earlier this year that there is undoubtedly still a lot of work to be done considering that only about 500 ships have been modified to date that complies with the requirements. However, he added that they want to deploy a smaller unmanned platform as soon as possible, at the same time, preparing to scale up the fleet in the next ten years.

“We will build future platforms with modernization in mind—hardware upgradeable and software updateable at the speed of innovation,” the NAVPLAN 2022 stated. “We must build adequate space, weight, and power into our large long-life capital investments to support evolving sensors and weapons systems.”

You can access the entirety of NAVPLAN 2022 here.