Is the Future of the U.S. Navy Feasible?

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Last month the House Armed Services Committee released its “Future of Defense Task Force Report 2020,” which sought to evaluate the strategic priorities of the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) to better match national resources to next-generation threats.  Among its many recommendations includes the need to “prioritize the development of emerging technologies over fielding and maintaining systems” by requiring “significant changes to force structure, posture, [and] operational plans…complemented by a tough and fulsome review of legacy systems, platforms, and missions.”  This is prescient given the ongoing debate about the future of the U.S. Navy (USN) and the merits of the recently proposed “Battle Force 2045” by Defense Secretary Mark Esper, which calls for a 500-ship fleet.  Although bold for its scope and vision, further analysis illustrates that the Battle Force 2045 fleet concept raises just as many questions as it seeks to answer. 

A brief review of how the USN arrived at a 500-ship fleet construct, however, is first in order.  In 2016, the USN released its Force Structure Assessment (FSA), which outlines the balance of existing forces, ships currently under construction, and future procurement plans needed to meet the service’s responsibilities.  This FSA led the Navy to support a 355-ship fleet requirement that Congress adopted as national policy in the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).  Since that time, the USN has developed plans to acquire unmanned surface and subsurface vehicles that would increase the total number of ships counted in the future fleet and embarked upon a new Integrated Naval FSA (INFSA) in 2019 to assess what a fleet with unmanned ships would look like.  DoD, however, did not release INFSA’s findings, instead choosing to commission new studies on the future fleet from the Pentagon’s Office Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation and the Hudson Institute to inform its Battle Force 2045 proposal.  These studies influenced the Navy’s departure from a target of 355 conventionally crewed ships to a 500-ship fleet composed of both crewed and minimally manned or autonomous platforms.   

Recent budget battles on capitol hill over this year’s shipbuilding account for the 355-ship fleet goal highlights the likely struggle the service will encounter as it shifts focus to its new 500 ship target.  The service initially sought a $19.9 billion shipbuilding budget to build eight ships in fiscal year 2021.  This proposal immediately drew bipartisan ire.  The chairman of the House Armed Services Seapower and Projection Forces subcommittee panned the navy’s plans as “dead on arrival.”  Another legislator remarked, "Congress can't want a bigger and stronger fleet more than the Navy and Marine Corps want a bigger and stronger fleet…there's a lot of confusion about the budget."  While the final version of the FY’21 NDAA has not received a vote, it remains likely that it will include funding for a greater shipbuilding budget and more ship construction.  This tension will only increase over the coming years given the navy’s proposed shipbuilding plan from FY’21 to FY’25, which would cut planned procurement by 10 ships.

The Navy’s decision to move from a 355 to 500-ship goal combined with disagreement about how to maintain the current fleet, let alone build towards a larger Navy, raises an important question that should frame any assessment of Battle Force 2045. Why has consensus about the best way to build a larger fleet in line with the Future of Defense report’s findings proven so difficult to achieve?  An obvious answer includes the costs associated with maintaining America’s current fleet and building more ships.  Despite a historically high budget in FY’20, the navy’s current fleet of 300 ships accounts for roughly half its size in FY’85.  This indicates that maintaining the current force is increasingly expensive relative to previous years and will limit any increase in fleet size.  Furthermore, even if Congress and the USN agreed upon the path towards a 355-ship fleet, both the Congressional Budget Office and Congressional Research Service have concluded that the cost of maintaining 355 ships over 30 years would exceed the cost of purchasing new ships or the recent budgets for operating today’s fleet.  These conditions suggest that growing the fleet with existing platforms remains unsustainable. 

Another important answer includes the difficulty surrounding what current platforms to divest from to build those ships needed for the future fleet.  Many legislators will likely resist stopping procurement of existing platforms if it affects their constituents.  Naval leadership would also need to engage in a parochial struggle over which platforms to cut.  Debate over the future of America’s aircraft carriers highlights this issue.  Defense leaders have previously intimated at lowering the number of carriers in the fleet due to their perceived vulnerabilities.  Yet many still believe their benefits outweigh the risks and do not support such cuts.  How the USN, Congress, and broader defense enterprise resolves this issue will impact any attempt to grow the Navy.   

These conclusions suggest that Battle Force 2045 will struggle to serve as a viable roadmap towards a future fleet.  Questions surrounding cost considerations and platform composition immediately arise after reading the new fleet proposal.  One can already anticipate how the Navy will struggle to both procure and maintain the future fleet.  Although the service would achieve savings by procuring smaller and cheaper ships, they would be offset by increasing the number of ships in the fleet. Even as the Navy increases its shipbuilding budget from 11 percent to 13 percent and receives promises of further DoD funding, anticipated downward pressure on defense spending in the coming years threatens any future ship buy. 

America's domestic shipbuilding and maintenance capacity further complicates cost estimates for the future fleet.  The Navy already struggles to maintain its current fleet, with 75 percent of its carrier and submarine fleets unable to make it through scheduled maintenance on time.  How the service would navigate this issue while adding more ships without opening new shipyards remains unclear.  The Battle Force 2045 proposal describes this problem as the Navy’s “Achilles Heel.”  This has persistent issue has led the Navy to implement the Shipyard Infrastructure Optimization Plan, which calls for $21 billion in improvements to existing Navy shipyards over 20 years.  Can a billion dollars a year over the next twenty years really keep pace with the rate of submarine and carrier production needed to support Battle Force 2045?  It seems unlikely.  An inability to effectively modernize existing infrastructure or invest in new shipyards will likely drive up future procurement or maintenance costs, limiting the utility of a larger fleet.

Battle Force 2045’s incorporation of autonomy and openness to finding cost savings from its aircraft carrier fleet deserves further consideration as well.  The decision to embrace uncrewed or minimally manned platforms deserves praise.  It acknowledges the vulnerabilities associated with the current fleet and presents an important solution.  Yet Secretary Esper's remarks did not provide much detail about how autonomous vessels will contribute to the fleet outside, mentioning how such ships will "perform a wide range of missions” and add “significant offensive and defensive capabilities.”  Will these ships perform new types of missions, simply replace existing platforms executing existing missions, or both?  How new and existing platforms will operate together remains just as important as having more ships.  More detail is required.

Furthermore, the Secretary acknowledged that the role of unmanned aircraft in the Navy “was not analyzed in detail” in the study that informed Battle Force 2045.  This presents a troubling comment, given the future force’s proposed investment in building smaller aircraft carriers.  While such carriers will have a smaller footprint, less construction and maintenance costs, and provide greater presence over a larger area, those benefits would be mitigated by the limited range of existing U.S. aircraft onboard those ships and their vulnerability to China's anti-access/area-denial capabilities.  Until the U.S. fields unmanned or optionally manned aircraft that operate over longer ranges and for greater periods of time in contested areas, America's carriers may struggle to serve as envisioned.

In sum, Battle Force 2045’s willingness to divest from supercarriers, promise of more amphibious ships to enable Marine Corps operations, and support for autonomous platforms will help build a better future fleet.   Nonetheless, its vision, which seemingly calls for building more of everything, deserves further scrutiny over the coming months and years.  Given America's financial health and the state of U.S. shipyards, Battle Force 2045 may struggle to survive first contact.  The Navy needs more ships, but it cannot afford to “out China” China.  Beijing relies on quantity over quality because it presides over what will soon be the world’s largest economy and lacks the domestic capability needed to build platforms as capable as those in the U.S. fleet.  America’s future fleet cannot rely upon building more of everything in response.  Washington needs a shipbuilding strategy that appreciates its current industrial and financial limitations and acts accordingly.  Until that time, the future fleet that the Navy needs and America deserves will prove difficult to attain.  

Adam Taylor recently separated from the Marine Corps, where he served four years as an air support control officer and is now in the Individual Ready Reserve.  He is currently pursuing his M.A. in international relations with a concentration in U.S. foreign policy and national security from American University's School of International Service.  The opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect any institutional position of the Marine Corps, Department of the Navy, or Department of Defense.

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