US Navy Releases Long-Range Shipbuilding Plan that Drops Emphasis on 355 Ships

Foreign Affairs

Washington: The Navy submitted an update to Congress to its annual long-range shipbuilding plans, one that takes a step back from the much-talked-about standard of a 355-ship fleet and instead lays out priorities for a future distributed naval force. The new document lays out a manned fleet as low as 321 manned ships and potentially as large as 372 manned ships.

A fleet of 321 manned ships would be a departure from past modelling, war gaming and analysis that pointed to a fleet of 355 or more manned ships to counter threats from China and Russia in a future fight. The lower number, though, is more in line with current fiscal constraints and industry capacity. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday said  that, “based on the top-line that we have, that we can afford a Navy of about 300 ships” – and there’s not much hope that Navy shipbuilding budgets will increase drastically in the next few years.

Those 321 to 372 manned ships would be supplemented by a yet-to-be-determined number of unmanned surface and underwater vessels – between 77 and 140, according to the document. It notes that new types of platforms, such as unmanned vessels, “bring great potential, but also have greater developmental risk. This is represented by a wider objective range. As prototyping and experimentation retire technical and [concept of operations] uncertainty and risk, along with a clearer understanding of the associated costs, we expect that the objective force ranges will narrow.”

As a result, the Navy’s total fleet could range from 398 manned and unmanned ships to 512. The Navy is required to submit a 30-year shipbuilding plan to Congress each year along with its budget request, but the document is often skipped in the first year of a new presidential administration. The outgoing Trump administration submitted a document in December 2020 that was labelled a fiscal 2022 long-range ship plan, and it laid out a fleet that would grow to 347 manned ships by the end of the decade and above 400 manned ships by 2050. The Biden administration has accompanied its FY22 budget request with a shorter document that includes more themes and priorities than actual long-range shipbuilding and ship inventory projections.

The document maintains the Navy’s focus on undersea warfare, which leadership has repeatedly said is an advantage the Navy needs to protect and expand. Still, it notes that the Navy and industry wouldn’t dramatically expand the size of the attack submarine fleet before the late 2030s, when the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine procurement ends.

The service would decommission seven cruisers – five that were already planned to age out of the fleet, and two more that are partway through a modernization program that’s growing more costly and more timely; four Littoral Combat Ships, two of which Congress said no to decommissioning in FY21; an amphibious dock landing ship, two attack submarines and a fleet tug.