The U.S. Navy believes it will reach its goal of a 355 ship fleet by the 2050s, or sooner if it can get the money and industry is capable of handling the workload. That’s the official word from the office of the Chief of Naval Operations in a document prepared as part of the 2019 fiscal year Federal Budget. The larger fleet is meant to help reduce the pressure on the existing fleet to keep pace with roles and missions, especially as Russia wields its own fleet more aggressively and China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy continues rapid growth.
The report, titled, “” details how the U.S. Navy plans to grow over the next thirty years, from a current to a goal of 355. The Navy has tried to grow the size of the fleet for years, but has been foiled by high shipbuilding and personnel costs, an emphasis on land warfare in the post 9/11 world, and the Great Recession of 2007-2012.
Recent events have turned the inability to grow the fleet from a source of frustration for the Navy to a broader national security issue. Russia’s recent use of its naval forces to help annex the Crimean peninsula, support its military intervention in Syria, and show the flag around NATO’s periphery have put a spotlight on the Russian Navy and, consequently, the U.S. Navy’s ability to counter it. The Chinese Navy has enjoyed spectacular growth in the last twenty years, and fielded the first of several aircraft carriers in 2012. And nobody knows how big a navy China really wants.
The report from the CNO’s office claims that the Navy’s “Battle Force” of combatants and support ships will reach its 355 ship goal “past 2050”... but could conceivably get there in the 2030s with a combination of new ships and extending the lifespan of older ships. Hitting that goal would require more money than currently forecast and the ability of shipyards to handle building new ships and refurbishing older ones at the same time.
The 355 ship navy, as envisioned today, includes 12 full-sized nuclear powered aircraft carriers, 12 nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines, 66 nuclear-powered attack submarines, 104 cruisers and destroyers, 52 frigate-sized ships, 38 amphibious ships, 32 logistics ships, and 39 command and support ships. Almost all ship types increase by at least ten percent over previous plans to grow the fleet to 308 ships, with attack submarines, cruisers, and destroyers, the latter the so-called “Large, Multi-Mission, Surface Combatants” gaining the most ships.
The service’s current shipbuilding schedule includes two Virginia-class attack submarines, 2.5 cruisers or destroyers, and two smaller frigate-sized ships a year. The Navy would order a new aircraft carrier every five years. Other ships, including amphibious and logistics vessels, would be ordered irregularly. (Particularly interesting are five new “large payload submarines,” which would be built starting in 2036, likely carrying a large number of cruise missiles.)
The Navy’s plan is a thirty-year marathon with a 355 ship Navy at the finish line. Will the service ever reach its goal? The rise of the Chinese Navy in the Pacific will put the spotlight on naval power, and it seems inevitable that air and naval forces will become the focus of America’s response. As long as the Chinese fleet goes, so will the U.S. fleet.
Still, a lot can happen in three decades. Just thirty years ago, the U.S. Navy had . Today, it has less than half that number. The end of the Cold War and the wars of the 9/11 era were two unforeseen events that had a significant impact on the size of the fleet. We can’t imagine what will happen over the three decades that will shape the Navy, but at least the service has a road map to get there.