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The 355-Ship Fleet: Navy Wants Even More Ships Than Trump Pledged

Posted by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. on

The Virginia-class attack submarine Minnesota (SSN 783) is under construction at at Huntington Ingalls Newport News Shipbuilding, Nov. 1, 2012. (U.S. Navy photo courtesy of Newport News Shipbuilding/Released) Photo by Chris Oxley

The Navy’s plan calls for a 38 percent increase in the number of attack submarine, like the Virginia-class sub USS Minnesota seen here under construction in Newport News.

WASHINGTON: Mr. Trump, we’ll see your campaign pledge of a 350-ship fleet and raise you five vessels, the US Navy effectively said this morning. The long-anticipated Force Structure Assessment calls for a fleet of 355 ships to counter “a growing China and a resurgent Russia,” Navy Secretary Ray Mabus announced today.

[Click here for Congressional reaction & expert analysis]

The new carrier USS Ford is afloat but still unfinished.

The new carrier USS Ford is afloat but still unfinished.

That’s almost 14 percent higher than the Navy’s previous goal of 308 ships, set back in 2014, and almost 30 percent higher than the fleet’s actual size today, 275. The largest category of growth? Nuclear-powered attack submarines, considered the stealthy capital ships of future war zones too lethal for surface vessels. This is the first increase in the goal for subs since 2004, noted a pleased Rep. Joe Courtney, top Democrat on the House seapower subcommittee, and it’s a doozy: from 48 boats to 66.

The 355-ship figure is an aspiration, not a funded budget, and it would require funding far above the Budget Control Act caps. But 355 is an aspiration with authority, grounded on the collective professional judgement of the fleet, informed by years of increasing consensus among analysts, and it will help set the terms for the budget debate.

Navy photo

LCS-2, USS Independence, followed by LCS-1, USS Freedom, showing the two different designs.

It’s not just the number of ships but the mix of types that shifts in the new plan. The 350-ship plan doesn’t pad the numbers with support craft and smaller warships. In fact, the target for “small surface combatants” such as frigates — which in practice means the controversial Littoral Combat Ship — stays at 52, as in past plans. Instead, the 355-ship plan is heavy on heavy hitters, adding

Only the extremes of the naval spectrum remain unchanged. The relatively cheap small surface combatants (e.g. LCS) remain unchanged at 52, and the immensely expensive nuclear-missile submarines (the future Columbia class) remain at 12.

Navy photo

Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Fitzgerald launches an SM-2 missile.

There’s a political backstory here. Mabus has campaigned for more ship throughout his seven years in office — an almost unprecedented tenure for a service secretary — and clashed with Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Deputy Secretary Bob Work, who think the Navy should spend more of its limited resources on upgrading the ships it has. All three men are now headed out of office, but US Naval Institute News has reported that Mabus is deliberately pitching his shipbuilding plans over Carter and Work’s heads to the incoming Trump administration.

The Office of the Secretary of Defense has accused Mabus of emphasizing quantity over quality. That conflict peaked with Carter’s order to build only 40 Littoral Combat Ships, instead of the full 52 the Navy said was necessary. The 355-ship plan stands by the 52 figure, but the growth is in high-end vessels like attack submarines and destroyers. This isn’t a shipbuilding plan driven by low-threat, day-to-day presence patrols: It’s a plan for war.


Updated 11:50 am with Rep. Courtney comment, shipyard information.

FSA Executive Summary SECNAV Final by BreakingDefense on Scribd

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