From The Editor | August 28, 2023

How Many Warships Does The U.S. Navy Need?

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By John Oncea, Editor


The U.S. Navy has a fleet of nearly 300 ships but says it needs more than 500 to accomplish its global mission. Current plans call for adding between 282 and 340 ships by 2052 but a series of shipbuilding failures have drained congressional confidence in the Navy's ability to put new ships in the water and maintain the ships they have.

The United States has 11 aircraft carriers, more than all other nations combined. These flattops serve as seagoing airbases, enabling the Air Wing it carries to project tactical air power over long distances. The U.S. does not, however, have the same advantage under the water.

Both the U.S. and China have 68 submarines, all of which are capable of performing stealthy lone-wolf attacks. Modern nuclear-powered submarines have enhanced combat capabilities that can prevail over aircraft carriers and surface warships.

With that in mind, the Navy wants to build a larger and more distributed fleet. The Navy's 2023 plan calls for buying between 282 and 340 ships over the 2023–2052 period, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Congressional Research Service reports the Navy’s proposed FY2024 budget requests $32.8 billion in shipbuilding funding. This includes funding for nine new ships, including one Columbia (SSBN-826) class ballistic missile submarine, two Virginia (SSN-774) class attack submarines, and two Arleigh Burke (DDG-51) class destroyers.

They are also planning to decommission 11 ships in fiscal year 2024, including eight before their planned end of service life, according to Defense News. This is fewer than the 24 ships the Navy requested to decommission in its FY23 submission.

All of this, however, is likely to reignite debate on Capitol Hill as no one can agree on how many ships are needed.

One Vision?

The Navy’s vision of a larger fleet isn’t new with calls for more ships dating back to the WEST 2022 Conference. “I’ve concluded – consistent with the analysis – that we need a naval force of over 500 ships,” National Defense Strategy, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday said during WEST 2022, according to USNI News. “We need 12 carriers. We need a strong amphibious force to include nine big-deck amphibs and another 19 or 20 [LPDs] to support them.

“Perhaps 30 or more smaller amphibious ships to support Maritime Littoral Regiments … to 60 destroyers and probably 50 frigates, 70 attack submarines, and a dozen ballistic missile submarines to about a 100 support ships and probably looking into the future about 150 unmanned.”

The most recent Battle Force Ship Assessment and Requirement (BFSAR), a congressionally-mandated report, requires 381 ships, up from 373 in the 2022 report, the first year it was released, according to USNI News.

“The analytics-based report determined a future battle force objective of 381 ships is required to meet future campaigning and warfighting demands,” the Navy said in a statement given to USNI News. “This report supports the 2022 National Defense Strategy and will inform future budget submissions and force structure requirements. The 2023 BFSAR reinforces the need for a larger, more capable, more distributed naval force.”

“In the 2040s and beyond, we envision this hybrid fleet to require more than 350 manned ships, about 150 large, unmanned surface and subsurface platforms, and approximately 3,000 aircraft,” reads last year’s NAVPLAN. “Strategic competition with China is both a current and long-term challenge. Focusing our force design on 2045 will inform the most consequential decisions and investments the Navy needs to make in the critical decade ahead.”

The Battle Within

Politico points out inconsistencies in the Navy’s estimates of future fleets, writing, “At different points this year, the Pentagon and Navy leaders have floated … five numbers as the desired size of the Navy, the result of a high-stakes — and still raging — internal battle among top Navy, Marine Corps, and Pentagon leaders.”

The disagreements among top officials are making it difficult for lawmakers to establish a target number for ship purchases in the upcoming fiscal year and beyond with the main issue being how many amphibious warships which carry Marines and can launch warplanes and landing craft are needed.

According to sources, Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks is leading an initiative to reduce the number of traditional, large-deck amphibious ships and instead invest in uncrewed ships and lighter vessels. However, Hicks’ plan is conflicting with the proposal of Navy and Marine Corps leaders who aim to retain dozens of these ships, which they consider crucial for transporting Marines and aircraft in the Indo-Pacific region as the U.S. aims to prevent the aggression of China.

Certain critics view the larger ships as vulnerable to Chinese long-range missiles and too cumbersome to approach the small island chains of the Pacific for safe deployment and resupply of Marines. The Navy’s strategy is to downsize, increase speed, and enhance uncrewed systems.

“Marine and Navy leaders are at odds with each other over another issue: Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger also wants to add 35 new light amphibious warships to allow his Marines to move through island chains more quickly while presenting less of a target. That’s a vision Navy leadership has never fully supported,” Politico reports.

Designing and building new ships comes with huge costs. As a result, the size and shape of the fleet always has been a politically sensitive issue. Additionally, the changing global security landscape often leads to disagreements between the admirals and civilians at the Pentagon and Capitol Hill.

Congress and the defense industry seem to have become weary of the Navy's fluctuating figures. Proposing a new shipbuilding strategy annually creates instability in the supply chain, making it challenging to produce ships continuously. Additionally, the ever-changing objective is perplexing both legislators and suppliers.

“In the end, Congress will have the final say over how large the Navy budget is and how many ships it can afford,” reports Politico. “While the Hill looks to pump tens of billions into President Joe Biden’s latest defense budget, the Navy is hardly in their good graces given massive cost overruns and schedule slippages on new ship programs over the past 20 years.”

“Congress remains very skeptical about the Navy’s ability to complete new shipbuilding programs and carry them through,” one congressional staffer said. “Lawmakers are certainly very skeptical that the Navy can do it on time and budget, and some members of Congress wonder whether the Navy can do it at all.”

What’s The End Game?

Before determining the size of the fleet, suggests Rand Corporation, the question of what the fleet is meant to achieve should be addressed. “Its size depends in part on the numbers needed for worldwide presence. But while it appears clear that presence does assist with deterrence, it is unclear what level of presence is needed to achieve these aims. The demand from combatant commanders for presence appears to be infinite, but the actual impact of any particular presence level is unclear.”

One limitation that is closely related is the fact that the U.S. Navy isn't adequately equipped by size or capability to handle provocations that are beneath the level of a full-scale conflict. For instance, if China were to use paramilitary forces to intimidate shipping, the U.S. Navy's total capabilities and force structure aren't intended to address the issue effectively, due to a shortage of smaller combatant ships that might be helpful in such a scenario.

“There is also uncertainty regarding what capabilities and capacity could be required to address the apex of naval conflict—a potential war with China,” writes Rand. “The roles of the U.S. Navy might be diverse: not only launching aircraft and missiles, but also conducting attacks and intelligence missions from submarines, supporting Marines, and even interdicting Chinese merchant traffic far from China's shores.”

The Navy needs to determine the appropriate fleet size and capabilities for different operations. Without this information, the current force may not be able to respond effectively to a variety of missions. While it can likely handle more significant threats, it may not be equipped to handle commitments during a prolonged conflict.