Pentagon Admits 355-Ship Navy Is a Pipe Dream, Will Never Happen

The new plan is to cheat by including drone ships in the count

Despite record budgets, the waste, inefficiency, and carrier and boomer costs, are such that a 355-ship navy is a fantasy. In fact, the hull count will shrink despite rising budgets

The Navy will buy a dozen fewer ships, slash its shipbuilding budget, and possibly decommission 12 more hulls over the next four years as part of a bold cost-cutting proposal submitted to the White House for its fiscal 2021 budget. The proposals would not move the service any closer to its goal of having 355 ships by 2034, as the fleet would actually end up slightly smaller in five years than it is today.

The plans, submitted to the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, would reap billions in savings for the service as it struggles with maintenance issues and builds expensive new generations of nuclear-powered submarines and aircraft carriers that are its top priorities. They moves were outlined in a Dec. 16 OMB memo I obtained. For budget hounds, it’s “Passback #2 – OMB Response to DOD Appeal.”

In response to the Navy’s proposals, the OMB instructed the Navy to come up with a plan “to achieve a 355-ship combined fleet, including manned and unmanned ships, by 2030.” To help the service boost the size of the fleet, OMB also ordered the Pentagon to “submit a legislative proposal to redefine a battleforce ship to include unmanned ships, complete with clearly defined capability and performance thresholds to define a ship’s inclusion in the overall battleforce ship count.”

Today, unmanned ships — no matter how lethal or effective they might be — are not considered part of the fleet, but the Navy is working on buying several large and medium- unmanned surface vessels that could fire the opening salvos in a future conflict. The 2020 defense budget provides $407 million for the Navy to buy large unmanned surface vessels, but does not allow the service to arm them with missile-carrying vertical launch systems just yet.

The Navy’s 2021 budget plan is far from complete, but it does show how relatively flat budgets in the coming years have planners at the Pentagon pushing for new ways to modernize the force and maintain it. It includes the recognition that while new capabilities come on line, other programs will have to pay the price. 

The White House order to come up with a plan for 355 ships is something Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly — who assumed the job when his predecessor Richard Spencer resigned abruptly in late November — has said he’s already working on. 

The Navy brass actually resents the imposition by the Congress and the White House to field 355 hulls and would rather cut cruisers, destroyers, and even frigates to get there, instead of the beloved carriers and the boomers that eat up most of the budget, and where the really big savings could be made

In a Dec 6. missive dubbed “SECNAV Vector 1,” Modly outlined one of his top five immediate objectives as being to “establish an integrated plan to achieve a 355 (or more) ships, unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs), and unmanned surface vehicles (USVs) for greater global naval power, within 10 years.” He added that the pending Integrated Naval Force Structure Assessment, which will lay our this path forward, will be released on January 15.

The force structure assessment is the product of a concerted effort by the Navy and Marine Corps to more closely align operations and build a new shipbuilding plan that takes into account the proliferation of long-range precision weapons by Chinese and Russian land batteries and aircraft that will force the fleet to fight farther from shore.

Some Navy officials have previously said the 355 number is in flux, and the OMB document shows that over the Future Years Defense Plan (FYDP), the Navy would “buy 42 warships and requests $111.8 billion in shipbuilding funds. The FY 2021 proposal will result in 12 fewer battle force ships and reduce shipbuilding funding by $9.4 billion” compared to 2020 budget projections.

When it comes to ships currently in the water, the document reveals that the Navy is considering “decommissioning an additional 12 warships to save money,” which would result in 287 warships in 2025, making the overall fleet smaller than the current 290 active duty ships it currently has.

There has been a long push and pull between the Navy’s shipbuilding estimates and those the CBO has previously come up with. In October, an analysis by the Congressional Budget Office showed that the Navy would have to spend $200 billion more — a 31 percent boost each year — over the next 30 years to reach its goal of 355-ships, a sharply higher number than the $660 billion the Navy has projected it will spend, the CBO said.

Multiple Navy officials contacted by Breaking Defense on Friday did not respond.

Analysts have been waiting for the service to come up with a detailed plan to achieve 355 ships since it first floated the number in 2016. “It’s the administration’s policy and the Navy has had a minimum requirement of 355 ships since 2016, but that same Navy has yet to produce a reasonable, actionable plan to get us to 355 ships in anything less than 30 years,” Jerry Hendrix, a retired Navy officer and VP of the Telemus Group told me.

“It would be unwise not to consider some of these large and medium unmanned platforms as part of the battleforce. The National Defense Strategy calls these new  technologies a core part of the path forward, so you cannot say that ‘this is one of the critical technologies that you have to develop,’ then turn around and say this is not a part of the battleforce.” Hendrix added.

Source: Breaking Defense

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