The U.S. Navy set a goal in 2016 of growing the fleet to 355 warships, a big jump from the current fleet size of 287 ships. Experts, however, say the goal is unrealistic in the absence of a significantly bigger Navy budget. In October, the Congressional Budget Office said that if the Navy sticks to its current shipbuilding and retirement plans, “it would not meet its goal of 355 ships at any time over the next 30 years.”
On top of the budgetary constraints, the goal of a bigger fleet is in conflict with the National Defense Strategy released just over a year ago, says Todd Harrison, the director of defense budget analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The new strategy emphasizes great-power competition with China and Russia, calling for a different mix of naval warfare capabilities, including more large – and expensive – surface combatants. That means the Navy shipbuilding budget will cover fewer ships overall. “Fully implementing the National Defense Strategy means you’ll need tradeoffs,” Harrison said last week. “Things have to go. The 355-ship Navy is out the window if you want to implement the plan.”
Speaking to reporters last week at the Pentagon, Adm. John Richardson, the chief of naval operations, said, “In light of the new National Defense Strategy and changes in the security environment since that was put out, we’re doing a new force structure assessment.”
One possibility, Richardson said, is that the fleet continues to grow, but to fewer than 355 ships. Another possibility is to redefine what a combat ship is. Currently, unmanned ships don’t count. But as the Navy continues to experiment with unmanned ships, including submarines, that definition may change.