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There is a debate ongoing within national security circles regarding the size of the United States Navy. How many ships does the nation require to uphold its interests on the high seas?

Simultaneously collisions, groundings, the deaths of Sailors and firings of admirals as well as GAO reports revealing 100-hour shipboard work weeks have all raised questions as to the internal makeup of the fleet and its external role in the world.  Conversations regarding the path to a 355-ship Navy have been subsumed by questions about how many Sailors each ship requires and how much training do they need?  These are first principle, building block questions that go to the foundation of the Navy, and lead to the primary question that all must ask: Why do we need a Navy and what do we expect it to do?

The Navy was recognized by the Founders as the guarantor of free trade and the lead agent of the nation’s defense; the first on the scene, in even the earliest war planning scenarios. That is why the Constitution charged the Congress to “maintain a Navy” while only requiring that the legislature be prepared “to raise an Army” if conditions demanded.  The Navy was seen as enduring, the Army as transitory.  In the years following World War II, national leaders advocated for a strategy of maritime supremacy; a Navy strong enough to fight and win not only against a single opponent, but against every likely combination of opponents. Ronald Reagan, the president who campaigned for a 600-ship Navy, stated his views on maritime supremacy, “We must be able in time of emergency to venture into harm’s way, controlling air, surface, and subsurface areas to assure access to all the oceans of the world.” In other words, the Navy needs to be able to establish a salient of supremacy in any maritime region and visit violence at will upon the nation’s enemies.

Today the Navy has 278 ships, but a survey of the requirements advanced by regional combatant commanders reveal that the Navy needs a minimum of 355 ships to meet operational demands for 85-100 ships at sea at any given moment. The 355-ship threshold called for by the nation’s leadership, including the Commander in Chief, President Donald Trump, represents a net increase of 78 ships. This number has been identified after careful analysis of the eighteen maritime regions where the United States has recognized national interests.  Within these regions analysts have examined the local security requirements (not everything requires an aircraft carrier) and the rotational ratios needed to keep a ship persistently forward deployed. Depending on the distances involved and the bases the ships originate from, it could take two (Caribbean), three (eastern Atlantic), four (western Pacific), or even five (Arabian Gulf) ships to keep on warship on station. These ratios are driven in part by the amount of time required to maintain a ship (3-6 months in shipyards after returning from a deployment), training a crew (six months) transit to the deployment location (up to a month), execution of the deployment plan (six to nine months) and then the transit home (again, up to one month.

This deployment cycle was relatively easy to honor with the fleet of 400 ships, which the Navy had until 1995, but became increasingly difficult to maintain as the Navy declined through 350 ships (1997) to 300 ships (2003) and impossible to accomplish within the present, 2017, 278 ship fleet. When the fleet is as small as it presently is, compromises have to be made within the deployment cycle, either in training or maintenance. A few years ago, maintenance was sacrificed, but when the fleet’s material readiness declined so precipitously that some ships could no longer get underway, maintenance was re-emphasized and training was sacrificed in order to keep ships at sea.  However, now that ships have begun to experience collisions and groundings with accompanying loss of lives at an alarming rate, the time has come to declare the system officially broken.  Investigations by the Government Accounting Office revealed that many ships in the western Pacific, the location of so many collisions, had as many as 37% of their training certifications waived in order to meet their deployment schedule.  It is clear that the current deficit of 78 ships is impacting more than just the nation’s long standing national interests or even our strategy of maintaining maritime superiority. Today, the inadequate size of our fleet is resulting in the deaths of American Sailors as they valiantly work 100-hour weeks to “do more with less.”  These numbers reflect a generation of Navy leadership attempting to make the fleet more efficient. It is thus critical that the Navy shift course dramatically and address the current fleet deficit.

This deficit can be made up in a number of ways. For instance, not every national interest requires a super carrier to support it and thus it would not be wise to buy 78 new super carriers. Naval leaders could neither afford to buy them nor man or maintain them. The Navy could also buy 78 rowboats, but they would not be credible as combatants or add to our overall defense. However, there are broad array of combat ships that lay far beneath the costs of a carrier and far above the effectiveness of rowboats. These include ballistic missile submarines, cruisers, destroyers, fast attack submarines and frigates. In the past, even within the last generation, the list would have also included battleships, but the last of these have left the fleet and will not return for a number of reasons. So, in the end, the Navy needs to decide what types of ships amongst the variants it currently employs, and in what ratio, it needs to buy.

The “cruiser” is a name that is well over a century old and comes down to the present day from armed sailing vessels that served the role their name implies, cruising independently, showing the flag in peace or performing commerce raiding missions in wartime.  As navies made the transition to wooden hulls to steel and from sail to steam, the cruiser designation remained in use and was attached to heavily armed ships that could go fast, still raiding enemy merchant lines of communication, but lacking the protective armor built into line of battleships that allowed them to slug it out in big gun battles.  A cruiser was designed to attack ships less capable that it was, while retaining a speed advantage to run away from others more powerful. With the eclipse of the all big-gun battleship during World War II, cruisers transitioned to a new roll, serving as protective air defense escorts for the carriers, using their large and small caliber guns to shoot down attacking aircraft. They also provide long range shore bombardment along with the larger battleships during amphibious assault operations.

Today’s Navy has 22 Ticonderoga cruisers, each equipped with the Aegis Mark VII combat system, are descendants of those air defense picket ships, substituting their advanced Standard Missiles for the large guns of old to shoot down aircraft or missiles attempting to attack the carrier. They each come with 122 Vertical Launch System (VLS) cells, two-thirds of which are filled with surface-to-air or surface-to-space Standard Missiles.  The latest iterations of the Standard Missile, the SM-3 and SM-6, possess abilities to shoot down ballistic missiles as well as aircraft and cruise missiles.  Cruiser requirements are generally linked to the job of defending the nation’s high value units, the super carriers. Each of the nation’s 11 super carriers, valued at six to thirteen billion dollars each, carrying sixty-five aircraft and 5,000 Sailors, need two cruisers to defend them while operating in hostile waters. Realistically, the required number of cruisers ought to be higher, as in the past each of the Navy’s smaller, light amphibious carriers had been attended by one cruiser while on deployment. Such a calculation would drive the basic cruiser requirement to 33, and the addition of a 12th carrier, as called for by the president, would raise the baseline to 35.  Problematically, today’s compliment of 22 cruisers are approaching the end of their planned service lives, although there has been some thought given to performing Service Life Extension Program modifications on them to buy another five to ten years of performance. Given that, it will cost between three and four billion dollars to replace the Ticonderoga class cruisers.  Their replacements might be modified Arleigh Burke Class destroyers.

Destroyers are a relatively new creation within the fleet. “Torpedo Boat Destroyers” were introduced to the fleet following Japan’s success with torpedo boats against the Russian navy in the early years of the 20th century. Small, swift, lightly armed craft were designed to escort larger combatants and then peel off to pursue and sink attacking torpedo boats before they could get within range of the battleships.  In the years between the great world wars, torpedo boat destroyers became just “destroyers” and took up duties as convoy and task force escorts, performing anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare missions.  During World War II they added their small guns to the air defense picket, but their main focus remained on enemy surface and subsurface craft, roles they continued to play into the Cold War. This continued until the early 1990s when the Aegis equipped Arleigh Burke class destroyer joined the fleet.

Burkes originally were intended to take up anti-surface and anti-air missions. The original design of the ships did not even come with a hangar to store the helicopters necessary to perform anti-submarine warfare missions. However, the mistake was noticed and a design modification was soon implemented to incorporate a hangar and the Burke become truly a master of all trades. Its 96 VLS cells, 75% of the Ticonderoga’s capacity, allowed it to carry anti-air, anti-surface, anti-submarine and land attack missiles in appropriate ratios for the threat in the regions it was deployed to. At 9,700 tons, the Burke class is as heavy as many World War II light cruisers, and it increasingly took up that role, both as an independent cruiser and as a carrier escort. The construction of the class was originally intended to end with the completion of the 62nd ship, but the threat environment and the stable nature of the design convinced the Navy to re-start production in 2012 after a short intermission. Current plans are to add as many as 22 additional “Flight III” Burkes to the original 62, making the Burke the longest lasting and most extensive production run of ships in the Navy’s history.  It will also create excess capacity in large missile shooting surface combatants, at least based upon requirements to escort the carrier. However, independent ballistic missile defense (BMD) missions in eastern Europe and northeast Asia are also driving requirements.

Frigates have been an integral part of the United States Navy since its earliest years. In 1794, naval architect Joshua Humphrey designed the original six frigates that served the nation so well during its early crises. Frigates were small, light ships built for speed. Too small to stand in a sailing line-of-battle, they were nonetheless considered essential and served as the eyes and ears of the fleet. They also escorted and protected sailing merchantmen moving to and from overseas ports. This role continues to characterize frigate duty in modern day.

During the Cold War, when the United States main strategic focus was the Soviet Union and supporting our NATO allies in Europe, the American Navy fielded between 60 and 100 frigates at any given time, making up 10-20 percent of the fleet. The focus of these ships was anti-submarine warfare and convoy escort. If the “balloon” went up and a general land war broke out in Europe, the frigates were to ensure the safe delivery of U.S. troops and equipment to the continent. They also performed naval presence missions, showing the flag in various locals to assure local governments of the United States’ interest in their security and to uphold US national interests through freedom of navigation operations as well. Frigates thus relieved larger combatants of the need to perform “milk run” missions, allowing the cruisers and destroyers to focus on “high-end” tasks.  Today the United States Navy has no frigates in its inventory, but historical models suggest that frigates should make up 36-73 ships of a 355-ship fleet depending upon the governing fleet strategy and mission focus. Given the current challenges to the free navigation and free trade, as well as the relative inexpensive nature of frigates (~$800M for a frigate vice $1.8-2.4B for a Burke class destroyer), consideration ought to be given to procuring frigates in larger numbers. The Navy is currently in the process of issuing a Request for Information from industry, including foreign shipbuilders, regarding designs for a new frigate class. Hopefully the Navy will build between 30 to 50 ships derived from a robust frigate design.

“What about combat credibility?” some will say with regard to the frigate, and they would be correct. Frigates would not be a front line combatant in a modern anti-access/area denial environment, but then again, neither would a destroyer, except for escort/defensive missions in company with the super carrier. Submarines, however, will take up positions on the front line and remain there, largely unseen, until they run out of torpedoes, missiles, and mines. Yet, the US Navy is woefully short of nuclear powered fast attack submarines.

Submarines have been around for over a century. Quiet and unseen, they were, are and will be the ultimate stealth platforms capable of penetrating and operating well within the A2AD “bubbles” that could be erected by those who would make themselves the enemy of the United States. The advent of nuclear power only added to their lethality, allowing these “boats” to submerge for months at a time without a requirement to surface for air or to recharge batteries. The United States Navy has also led the way in platform quieting, dramatically reducing the range at which its submarines can be passively detected by underwater sensors. Fast attack submarines are designed to do what their name suggests: attack enemy surface combatants, merchantmen and submarines. In the latter case, submarines, because they live far beneath the ocean’s surface, are often best equipped to detect enemy submarines through the various paths that sound travels under water. More recently submarines have added land attack missiles to their repertoire and begun to participate in long range precision strike missions. Submarines have also taken strong roles in highly secret intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance missions as well. 

During the Cold War, driven by operational demands, the US Navy routinely operated 80-100 fast attack submarines in its fleet, which equated to about 15-20% of the force. In a 355 ship Navy, this would reflect 53-71 boats. Unfortunately, the Navy’s fast attack inventory is on a steep downward slope and is projected to drop from 52 boats in 2016 to 41 in 2029. This would represent the fewest number of attack submarines in the inventory since 1915.  In order to achieve the appropriate operational ratio, the US Navy could extend the lives of some of its Los Angeles class (Improved) submarines currently scheduled to retire as well as increase its annual production of new Virginia class submarines from two per year to three. Both options should be executed.

Nuclear Ballistic Missile Submarines, otherwise known as “Boomers,” were conceived in the 1950s to ensure that the nation had a survivable second-strike option in the event of a nuclear war. Nuclear power allowed these boats, loaded with numerous inter-continental ballistic missiles tipped with multiple nuclear warheads, to disappear into the deep waters of the Atlantic or Pacific for months on end to hide and remain undetected, awaiting orders that every member of their crews hoped would never come.  The number of missiles carried by these weapons of mass destruction are limited by 1992 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties, which altered the present number of boomers in the US inventory from 18 Ohio class ballistic missile submarines to 14 during the 1990s. The four Ohio class boats stricken from their ballistic missile defense missions were repurposed as nuclear powered guided missile submarines, each carrying 154 conventionally armed Tomahawk missiles. Presently the Navy is planning to purchase twelve new “Boomers” at a cost of $6-8B each to replace the current inventory beginning in the 2020s.

It would be a mistake to consider fleet architecture without addressing the makeup of the carrier’s air wing. During the Cold War the air wing was composed of a broad assortment of aircraft and possessed an average unrefueled range of nearly a 1,000 nautical miles.  However, during the 1990s, the Navy began to retire its Cold War air wing, replacing the diverse collection of aircraft with the FA-18 Hornet, a reliable multi-mission aircraft that was limited in its range. Naval aviation based its air wing composition decisions on its assumptions that the carrier would operate in largely permissive environments where sortie generation rather than aircraft range would dominate operations. However, the enemy zigged while the Navy zagged, investing in Anti-Access/Area-Denialtechnologies designed to push the carrier and its air wing outside of their effective range. Investments in the FA-18 Block III Super Hornet as the F-35C Lightening II will begin to buy back tactical range, but the true potential game changer could be the Navy’s new MQ-25 Stingray if its design supports penetrating strike as a mission.

The balance of ships and aircraft within a fleet’s architecture matters. Having a fleet with no frigates is like a baseball team taking the field without its outfielders. Too few fast attack submarines would be like a quarterback lining up without a line of guards or tackles on a football field. Considering past fleet architectures and current mission sets, a future 355-ship fleet emerges comprised of 12 carriers, 35 cruisers, 72 destroyers, 64 frigates, 65 fast attack submarines, and 12 ballistic missile submarines. Other ships, amphibious assault ships, expeditionary fast transports and various auxiliaries, would make up the remaining ninety-five ships.  It should be understood these reflect the bare minimum numbers. Strict adherence to actual requests from regional combatant commanders would result in a fleet of 445 ships.

Creating a 355-ship fleet will not be inexpensive. It will cost nearly an additional $25B per year in shipbuilding, maintenance, training and personnel costs, but a large scale war would run into the trillions per year. In the end, investment in a fleet comprised of the right types of ships in the right numbers and proportions will be, as Theodore Roosevelt once said, “the surest guarantee of peace.” Congress should move quickly to set aside the restrictions of the 2011 Budget Control Act and rapidly fund the Navy to grow it to 355-ships.  Such a move will renew the United States’ commitment to strategy of maritime supremacy and ensure credible global leadership. 


Dr. Jerry Hendrix is a Senior Fellow and Program Director of the Defense Strategies and Assessments Program at the Center for a New American Security. A retired Captain of the United States Navy, Hendrix previously served as the Director of Naval History and Military Assistant to the Director of the Office of Net Assessment.


This article appeared originally at The National Interest.

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