The US Navy: Charting a Course for Tomorrow’s Fleet

This paper assesses the adequacy and affordability of current US Navy plans in light of current trends in naval warfare, expected future budget environments, and, most importantly, the likely operational demands associated with three enduring, long-term strategic challenges. These challenges are: defeating both the Sunni Salafi-Takfiri and Shia Khomeinist brands of violent Islamist radicalism; hedging against potential challenges posed by authoritarian capitalist states such as China and Russia; and preparing for a world in which there are more nuclear-armed regional powers. After conducting this assessment, the report lays out recommended changes to the current Navy plans in order to envision a future fleet that is both more capable and more affordable.

These recommended changes are shaped by the observation that the US Navy finds itself alone at the top of the global naval hierarchy with a comfortable margin of superiority. Given that the size of the Navy’s battle force stands at 280 ships — less than half the size of the ultimate Cold War fleet — this may be surprising to some. However, while the US battle force is smaller than it has been in over seven decades, so too are the rest of the world’s navies. Furthermore, the Navy is transitioning from a fleet of ships to what officials describe as FORCEnet: a system of collaborative battle networks that would share data from across the force to form common operational pictures and use internet protocol-based systems to enable interactive combat planning, targeting, and execution. This transition means that the Navy is now defined less by the numbers of ships in its Total Ship Battle Force, and more by the combined capabilities found in its Total Force Battle Network (TFBN). Moreover, the Navy’s TFBN is itself part of both a larger National Fleet, defined by the combined capabilities of the US Navy, US Marine Corps, US Coast Guard, and Military Sealift Command, as well as a larger Joint Total Force Battle Network. Once the additional support drawn from these two entities is factored in, the US Navy’s 280-ship fleet likely enjoys no less than a thirteen-navy standard in aggregate fleet combat power.

However, since 1990, comparing the US Navy against foreign navies is no longer an adequate way to judge US naval power. Instead, the Navy, along with the entire joint force, must prepare to fight two regional adversaries in overlapping timelines. Under this new two-war standard, in addition to conducting traditional naval fire and maneuver, the evolving TFBN would need to complete many additional tasks, such as: screening the arrival of joint forces, supporting joint operations ashore with air and missile attacks, and defending the joint force and allies from the same. In addition to preparing for two overlapping wars, the Navy also sizes its forces so that they can maintain persistent forward presence during peacetime. More than a decade’s worth of Navy analysis suggests that a two-war-plus-presence TFBN standard requires between 300 and 346 active ships, with a current objective target of 313. This means that the current 280-ship active fleet is now just 33 ships short of the Navy’s stated requirement.

Current Navy Plans

The Navy plans to meet this 313-ship TFBN goal with an aggressive thirty-year shipbuilding and force modernization plan. However, these plans suffer from two deficiencies. First, the resulting fleet lacks certain capabilities required to meet the operational demands of the three aforementioned strategic challenges. Specifically, it lacks the range to face increasingly lethal, land-based, maritime reconnaissance-strike complexes, or nuclear-armed regional adversaries. Moreover, it does not adequately take into account the changing nature of undersea warfare, or the potential prospect of a major maritime competition with China.

Second, even if the Navy’s desired TFBN could match up perfectly against future operational requirements, the signs are that the Navy’s plans are far too ambitious given likely future resource allocations. Between FY 2003 and FY 2008, the Navy spent an average of $11.1 billion a year for new-ship construction (in constant FY 2009 dollars). In comparison, the average annual cost for new-ship construction projected by the Navy and Congressional Budget Office (CBO) is $20.4 and $22.4 billion, respectively. Moreover, these costs do not include the substantial resources necessary to build the twelve replacements for the current strategic ballistic missile submarine force. It seems clear, then, that the Navy needs to scale back its current plans; they are simply too ambitious for expected future budgets.

An Alternate Plan

Based on the analysis of future tasks and missions for the TFBN, as well as expected future budgets, this paper makes several recommended changes to the Navy’s current plans. These recommendations are shaped by the following assessments:

  • The United States need not worry about losing global maritime superiority any time soon. Even with “only” 280 warships, the Navy’s current Total Force Battle Network it still the most powerful naval force in the world by a wide margin. When considering the combined capabilities of the 583-ship National Fleet, as well as the support the Navy’s TFBN receives from the broader Joint Total Force Battle Network, the margin of US naval superiority is even wider.
  • The future TFBN should continue to be a two war-plus force, but with a more specific orientation. It must first be large and capable enough to support overlapping joint fights against a large, continental-sized adversary with advanced maritime recon-strike and undersea combat networks, and a mid-sized, nuclear-armed, regional adversary. The future TFBN should also be able to support operations against radical Islamist terrorists and the evolving Joint Global Counterterrorist/Counterproliferation Network, as well as maintain persistent forward presence requirements for both combat-credible forces and proactive maritime security and partnership-building operations.
  • Meeting the foregoing warfighting requirements is less about increasing ship numbers, and more about getting the right mix of TFBN capabilities and capacities. Moreover, while creating favorable security conditions and supporting the Joint Global Counterterrorist/Counterproliferation Network may require new thinking about naval forward presence, it will not require a major expansion of ships. The idea is to build partnership maritime capacity in the world’s littorals, not to flood the world’s littorals with US ships.
  • To support persistent global maritime security operations as well as the Joint Global Counterterrorist/Counterproliferation Network, the Navy will need to establish a minimum of seven Global Fleet Stations in the following regions: Caribbean and East Coast of South America, West Coast of Africa, East Coast of Africa, Southwest/South Asia, Southeast Asia, East Asia, and Western Pacific/Oceania.
  • Fighting against advanced multidimensional maritime recon-strike networks and against regional nuclear-armed adversaries will require the future aircraft carrier and surface combatant fleets to operate and fight from greater ranges than they do today.
  • Future multidimensional maritime recon-strike networks will likely include increasingly sophisticated undersea combat networks. As a result, the tactical submarine fleet must develop a whole new generation of undersea weapons and capabilities including smaller multipurpose submarines (both manned and unmanned), vehicles and weapons.
  • Seabasing is not about replacing land bases. In the context of a two-war standard, seabasing is about exploiting command of the seas to enable the rapid transoceanic expeditionary maneuver of ready-to-fight combat units and the rapid movement of personnel, goods, and services, thereby providing an interdependent joint force with a high degree of global freedom of action and initial operational independence from forward land bases.
  • The idea of an integrated and interoperable National Fleet — incorporating the combined capabilities of the Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, Military Sealift Command, and the strategic sealift fleet — is a powerful one that should be realized to the greatest possible degree.
  • As a result of its great margin of maritime superiority, the United States can patiently and carefully assess the direction of the long-term global naval competition before making any dramatic changes to its force structure or organization. In the meantime, to strengthen its long-term competitiveness, the US Navy must invest in robust research and development while sustaining the country’s naval design and industrial base. It must also work to reduce both costs for individual ships and projected expenditures for building and sustaining the fleet.
  • The four best ways to reduce shipbuilding costs and conserve resources are: exploit ship and aircraft designs now in production to the fullest extent possible in order to benefit from learning curve efficiencies; reduce the total number of different ship types to accrue savings in training, maintenance, and logistics; reduce crew sizes, which are the largest driver of a ship’s life-cycle costs; and aggressively pursue improved networking capabilities.
  • Given expected future defense budgets, the levels of resources needed to support the Navy’s current plan are unrealistic. A more plausible total yearly shipbuilding target might be in the vicinity of $20 billion — a 25 percent reduction over the Navy’s plan. Given the uncertainty over future defense budgets, assuming the Navy will receive even $20 billion a year for shipbuilding may be too optimistic.

Based on these assessments, the Navy should consider making the following changes to their current plans. Unless indicated, all costs are expressed in FY 2009 constant dollars.

Strategic Deterrent Fleet

After completing the ongoing mid-life refueling cycle for the first twelve of fourteen Ohio-class SSBNs, immediately reduce the strategic deterrent fleet to its final TFBN target of twelve boats. Commence work on the SSBN(X) design immediately.

Large Undersea Combat Systems

  • Begin a concerted research and development program for small manned undersea vehicles, autonomous underwater vehicles and other unmanned underwater systems, as well as a new generation of littoral ASW weapons.
  • Increase the build rate for Virginia-class SSNs to two per year no later than FY 2011, while continuing to upgrade the class in successive flights.
  • Convert the last two Ohio-class SSBNs to SSGNs at their regularly scheduled mid-life overhauls.
  • Develop new types of smaller, manned multipurpose, underwater vehicles designed for parasite operations from both SSGNs and SSNs.

Large Tactical Aviation Seabases

Slow the production rate of nuclear-powered carriers (CVNs) from one every four years to one every five years.
Consider accelerating both the current unmanned combat air system (UCAS) demonstration program and the planned operational debut of the Navy’s UCAS.

Large Battle Network Combatants

  • Halt production of the DDG-1000 after three ships, restart the Arleigh Burke-class DDG production line in FY 2010, and delay the start of the CG(X), now planned for FY 2011, until at least FY 2015.
  • Commence and complete the planned mid-life modernizations for fifteen of the twenty-two Ticonderoga-class cruisers, and all sixty-two of the authorized Arleigh Burke-class destroyers. Retire the first seven Ticonderoga-class cruisers early.
  • Immediately begin designing a new modular large battle network combatant (LBNC) which would have a conventionally-powered, integrated electric propulsion and power system similar to the system designed for the DDG-1000, but with more advanced electric motors.

Small Battle Network Combatants

Ramp up production to a maximum of four new Littoral Combat Ships (LCSs) per year and sustain that rate even after reaching the 55-ship TFBN target.

Naval Special Warfare/Naval Expeditionary Combat Command Ships and Craft

  • Build six Joint Multi-Mission Submersibles as rapidly as possible. Develop an even smaller manned multipurpose underwater vehicle (MMUV), designed to fit vertically inside an SSGN or SSN payload tube.
  • Stand up a dedicated special warfare helicopter squadron with MH-60S helicopters, modified as necessary to support the clandestine, low-level insertion of SEAL Teams and other special operations personnel.
  • For each of the seven aforementioned Global Fleet Stations, build/convert and assign one station command ship (a retired amphibious landing ship manned and crewed by the Military Sealift Command); a Naval Reserve Force Maritime Security Frigate (based on the Legend-class National Security Cutter); one Joint High Speed Vessel; one riverine squadron of thirteen boats; and four Coastal Patrol Ships.

Naval Maneuver and Maneuver Support (Prepositioning) Ships

  • Size the TFBN naval maneuver and maneuver support fleet to support a naval maneuver operation with two Marine Expeditionary Brigades (MEBs), reinforced by three additional brigades delivered by a combination of maritime prepositioning force (MPF) ships (vehicles and supplies) and airlift (personnel).
  • Cancel the Future MPF squadron as now configured. Build only three Mobile Landing Platforms, and assign one to each legacy MPF squadron.
  • Build “escort carriers” (CVEs) designed to carry Marine Corps F-35B short take-off and vertical landing aircraft.
  • Build an eleventh LPD-17 in FY 2010, and then build eleven LSD replacements based on the LPD-17 hull at a rate of one per year between FY 2011 and FY 2021.
  • Take the seven Whidbey Island and Harpers Ferry-class LSDs in best condition, transfer them to the Military Sealift Command, give them a modest mid-life up-grade, and use them as the command ships for the aforementioned Global Fleet Stations. Retire the remaining five ships.
  • Joint Sealift Ships

    Replace the eight Fast Sealift Ships now in service with a new class of High Speed Shallow Draft ships.

    Combat Logistics Force and Support Ships

    The Navy should transfer the twelfth T-AKE ship from the now-defunct MPF(F) to the Combat Logistics Force (CLF) while also consolidating future CLF shipbuilding on this hull form. The Navy should begin to replace its oilers from FY 2011 until FY 2025 at the rate of one per year with a hull based on the T-AKE. In FY 2027, the Navy would then shift over to a new T-AOE(X) station ship, based on the T-AKE hull, at an average rate of one per year. By the mid-2030s, the CLF fleet would thus consist of 31 ships, all based on a common hull, providing a significant savings in training and maintenance costs. The Navy should also purchase an additional five JHSVs for general fleet support.

    A Larger, More Capable, and More Affordable TFBN

    Compared to today’s fleet, the 2028 TFBN would be more capable across the full naval warfighting spectrum. At the lower end of the spectrum, the TFBN would have substantially more capacity for day-to-day engagement with smaller navies and for counterterrorism and maritime security missions. At the higher end, the TFBN’s undersea combat fleet would be more capable of taking on undersea combat networks, and its surface fleet would be far more able to fight from range against maritime A2/AD networks and nuclear-armed regional powers. Meanwhile, the TFBN would be in the midst of a fleet-wide transition and consolidation of ship types, with significant payoffs for training, maintenance, and logistics. These ships would also have a high degree of interoperability and mission flexibility that would result in a TFBN that is more adaptable and versatile.

    Over the next thirty years, this plan would see the new construction of 328 major warships and submarines, not counting any ships built or leased for the sealift fleet. Using the more conservative Congressional Budget Office estimates as a basis for comparison, the average yearly total shipbuilding costs for this plan would be $21.8 billion, including $19.9 billion in new-ship construction. These figures include the costs for the SSBN(X), as well as those for small boats, craft, and manned under- water vehicles. Nevertheless, the plan would still call for a significant increase in ship-building resources — about 74 percent more than the $12.6 billion per year spent on shipbuilding between FY 2003 and FY 2008.

Download PDF

Download full “The US Navy: Charting a Course for Tomorrow’s Fleet” report.

Read full publication

Read the full publication “The US Navy: Charting a Course for Tomorrow’s Fleet” report using our online e-reader tool.