A Quick Review of the Navy’s New Force Structure Assessment

December 16, 2016

For special access to experts and other members of the national security community, check out the new War on the Rocks membership.

Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus announced the results of a much-awaited internal review of fleet size known as a “Force Structure Assessment. It appears that the Navy is setting its sails to the winds of renewed great power competition. The assessment states a requirement of 355 ships that Mabus declares must “continue to protect America and defend our strategic interests around the world, all while continuing the counter terrorism fight and appropriately competing with a growing China and resurgent Russia….”

The previous force structure assessment completed in 2012 called for a fleet of 308 ships, and that requirement has served to buttress Mabus’ position in the recent conflict with Defense Secretary Ash Carter over the 2018 budget and the size of the fleet. This new assessment (along with President-elect Trump’s stated desire for a 350-ship Navy) adds additional heft to Mabus’ reported position. The table below summarizes each of the ship classes contemplated in both this assessment and the previous one conducted in 2012.


The naval aviation community, in order to foster a culture of thorough but impersonal mission debriefing, uses the practice of “goods and others” to review performance, with “goods” corresponding to what was found to be positive, and “others” corresponding to everything else. This approach seems appropriate to an analysis of the issue at hand.


The centrality of great power competition. Although the strategic assumptions underpinning this assessment are classified, Mabus’ statement makes it clear that renewed great power competition is the primary impetus for advocating for a dramatic increase in fleet size. There have been reports that the Pentagon was instructed to limit its emphasis on great power dynamics, but it appears that the Navy recognizes its unique and critical role in managing this competition by providing a credible, forward deployed deterrent.

Increase in attack submarines. Attack submarines are incredible intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets, in addition to being unmatched killing machines in wartime. What is not stressed in the announcement is that while the requirement for attack submarines was 48, the number in the fleet is headed downward to 41 as Reagan-era submarines built at a clip of three per year are replaced by Virginia-class hulls built at two per year. Clearly, the nuclear industrial base is in for a boost. For the 66 attack submarines called for in this assessmentto be realized, three per year should be constructed, even as the Navy replaces its aging Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines.

An additional aircraft carrier. The Navy should be present in three major theaters (Europe, the Middle East, and the Pacific) and a fleet of 11 aircraft carriers is insufficient to meet those demands. That the Navy currently only has 10 carriers (due to a waiver the Congress granted to its legal requirement for 11 while the USS Gerald Ford (CVN 78) is constructed), further exacerbates the problem.

Additional amphibious ships. Amphibious ships are notoriously in high-demand due to their utility and flexibility. The Marine Corps has consistently stated its requirement to be 38 ships, and it appears that the Navy is finally consenting to meeting that requirement.


This is a force structure assessment and not a fleet architecture. What was released today is the distilled product of serious analysis by the Navy, but it is still just a projection of the major forces it will need to do its job in the decades ahead. Unanswered are questions such as 1) What does the Navy believe that job to be? 2) How will the carrier air wing evolve to meet the demands of the anti-access challenges posed by great powers (and others)? 3) What is the role of unmanned vehicles in the future fleet, how will they interact with the manned fleet, and how should their presence be counted? 4) What changes in employment and posture are required to meet the challenges of emerging great power competition, beyond simple fleet growth?  Congress was interested enough in questions of this nature that it directed the Navy in 2016 to conduct a series of alternate fleet architecture studies, the results of which have not been made public. I was privileged to assist Bryan Clark of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) in one of the fleet architecture studies, and while I cannot speak to its specific results until it is released, the force structure our architecture describes is numerically similar the Navy’s, but it is based upon fundamentally differing notions of conventional deterrence and force posture. Simply growing the Navy and operating it as we do today will not be an effective response to renewed great power competition.

Too many large surface combatants. The executive summary released by the Navy announcing this assessment points to “…increased…expeditionary BMDBallistic Missile Defense]” requirements to justify the larger number of large surface combatants. There is an important “roles and missions” question at the heart of this discussion, and the defense of land-based expeditionary forces could, in many cases, be more efficiently be provided by land based Army air defense artillery, freeing up expensive multi-mission ships to pursue the numerous other naval missions required of them. Additionally, for the cost of 16 additional large surface combatants (at $2 billion each) approximately 40 smaller ships can be built (see below).

Too few small surface combatants. Everything worthwhile that the Navy does depends on sea control.  Sea control requires a force to neutralize the surface, subsurface, and air threats to it where it wishes to operate. Put another way, the Navy cannot project power without sea control, and the ability of our great power competitors to deny us sea control is on the increase. More numerous, heavily armed and resilient SSC are critical to a credible conventional deterrent force capable of targeting and neutralizing adversary ships and submarines.

The  combat logistics force is too small. One of the major findings of the CSBA study mentioned above is the insufficiency of the combat logistics force. Although the new assessment increases the size of this force (oilers, dry cargo ships, etc) somewhat, the wartime requirement envisioned by the CSBA study is dramatically larger.

In Closing

For an advocate of American seapower, there is much to like in this force structure assessment, but Congress and the American people will expect a thorough discussion of the strategic assumptions and narrative behind these numbers before the Navy can start “bending metal.” This 355-ship Navy will be considerably more expensive to acquire, train, man, and equip than the current 273 ship fleet, and given the readiness hole the Navy is already in, the expense of this plan could amount to an additional $40 billion annually (in 2016 dollars). The Navy is to be commended for at last thinking beyond the constraints of current budgets and stating what it needs to do its job within an acceptable margin of risk.


Bryan McGrath is the Managing Director of The Ferrybridge Group LLC and the Assistant Director of Hudson Institute’s Center for American Seapower.

Image: U.S. Navy photo by Seaman Casey S. Trietsch

We have retired our comments section, but if you want to talk to other members of the natsec community about War on the Rocks articles, the War Hall is the place for you. Check out our membership at warontherocks.com/subscribe!

7 thoughts on “A Quick Review of the Navy’s New Force Structure Assessment

  1. I mean, seriously, you actually expect the US taxpayer to go for this? And don’t get me wrong, I’m pro-Navy, the legacy of growing up as the son of a US Navy Chief who not only was on the Astria at Savo, but voluntarily went back onto the burning ship after successfully evacuating it and despite being wounded (just a little Jap shrapnel in mu butt, son, no big deal) to try to put out the fires before they got to the five inch magazine which had never been flooded. Heck, I learned how to read as a kid (on Guam) by reading his old tech manuals that always started out with a story about some great Naval battle (the battle between the Serapis and the Bonhomme Richard being a personal favorite in first grade.

    I was indoctrinated young band indoctrinated well, and though I chose a different service for my military career, I know more about and view the US Navy more favorably than your average retired Air Force guy. But really, fellows, what HAVE you been smoking?

    Let’s talk about Navy shipbuilding. Let’s barely even mention the USS George H. W. Bush, which seems destined to still be under construction long after the person for which it is named has been consigned to some corner of Arlington Cemetary. It is already years late and massively over budget.

    Nor do I care to talk about the LCS program, about which one can say the same, adding that the damn things don’t seem to meet the basic test of any ship (far less a putative WARship) of even being seaworthy.

    Let’s talk about the Zumwalt, once supposed to be the lead ship of a class of – what was it? Twenty-seven with an option for more? Now reduced to one of only three that will be built, and that’s looking iffier by the day.

    During my time in the Navy’s far more junior sister service, I actually did rotate through a couple of assignments where I got to understand logistics and even got myself qualified in the acquisition professional program. I understand not only the things that can happen to a program, but how costs can be hidden for public relations purposes. Things like only quoting part of the cost for something, as in would you like an f-35? They are only $108 million. But if you want the optional ENGINE in that airframe, well, that’s another $22 million. Plus installation.

    And even then , you only quote the INCREMENTAL cost, that is, what it would cost if you amortized everything you have already spent or would have to spend, all the R&D, contracting costs, dedicated logistics, etc., against all of the previous units of that class, and were simply paying for the metal, labor, and profit for the manufacturer of that final unit, which has never reflected reality.

    The fairer – indeed the only fair way really – to assess unit cost is to take the total system cost and divide it by the total number of units produced, which for the Zumwalt class is currently $8 BILLION per unit, and realize that’s a BEST CASE SCENARIO.

    Now I won’t even challenge the NEED of the Navy to acquire the numbers of combatants this article claims are required, I simply maintain that IT IS NOT GOING TO HAPPEN unless and until the Navy has demonstrated the capability to produce viable warships at an affordable cost in a reasonable period of time, and they have failed miserably on all three of those criteria with the last three surface combatant class’s they have developed (ok, are still ATTEMPTING to develop.

    Neither the taxpayer money nor the taxpayer will is going to be there to support beefing up the force structure while the acquisition process I’d this….FUBAR. Yes, I know, it’s at least to some degree the fault of Congress, both for creating a largely unmanageable acquisition process and for creating an atmosphere where manufacturers feel a need to parcel out penny-packets of the job to as many states and congressional districts as possible to buy Congressional votes. I understand that, I worked in that system myself. But IT SIMPLY DOESN’T MATTER.

    Unless the Navy can produce working warships at affordable prices in a reasonable timeframe, there will be neither the taxpayer dollars nor the public willingness to allow an expansion of the fleet. And right now the Navy lacks the capacity to manage the production of working warships at affordable prices in a reasonable timeframe.
    It’s as simple as that.

  2. It appears that the increase in large surface combatants, which are generally in the form of Aegis equipped large cruisers/destroyers, is tied to two missions:

    1) protect the additional CVN task force being added

    2) provide additional anti-ballistic missile coverage, which is both a reflection of the increasing threat from North Korea and very likely Iran also, but also to defeat anti-access/area denial by the Chinese in particular.

    For those reasons I believe the higher number of large surface combatants makes tremendous sense, and is a better use of defense dollars than further increasing the numbers of small surface combatants.

  3. Just an example. $2 BILLION in R&D costs for a program that will yield NO CAPABILITY WHATSOEVER. From Defense News:

    New Warship’s Big Guns Have No Bullets
    By: Christopher P. Cavas, November 6, 2016
    WASHINGTON — Barely two weeks after the US Navy commissioned its newest and most futuristic warship, armed with two huge guns that can hit targets 80 miles away, the service is moving to cancel the projectiles for the guns, citing excessive costs that run up to $800,000 per round or more.

    The Long Range Land-Attack Projectile (LRLAP) is a guided precision munition that is key to the DDG 1000 Zumwalt-class’s mission as a land-attack destroyer, able to hit targets with such accuracy that, in the words of manufacturer Lockheed Martin, can “defeat targets in the urban canyons of coastal cities with minimal collateral damage.”

    The LRLAP is the only munition designed to be fired from the DDG 1000’s Advanced Gun System (AGS), a 155mm/62-caliber gun with an automated magazine and handling system. Each of the three Zumwalts will carry two of the guns – the largest weapons to be designed for and fitted on a warship since World War II.

    But the LRLAP’s unit price has jumped steadily as the numbers of Zumwalt-class destroyers were cut. From a total of 28 ships, to seven, and finally to three, the class shrank and costs did not.

    “We were going to buy thousands of these rounds,” said a Navy official familiar with the program. “But quantities of ships killed the affordable round.”

    Even at $800,000 a copy, the LRLAP’s price could go higher. “That’s probably low,” the Navy official said. “That’s what the acquisition community wanted to get it down to.” The official added that there was no sense the contractor was “overcharging or anything.”

    The decision to accept the LRLAP cancellation is part of the Program Objective Memorandum 2018 (POM18) effort, the Pentagon’s annual budget process. Although the Navy made a presentation to the Office of the Secretary of Defense on Nov. 2, the decision has yet to be signed off on.

    For the record, the Navy would not comment directly on the effort to kill LRLAP.

    1. Not every weapons system idea bears fruit … for every successful program there are many others that fail at various points in the development pathway. The Zumwalt program is now a white elephant, not because of the LRLAP, but because the hull type itself has been abandoned, effectively. That makes its entire development cost a sunk cost that will never yield dividends.

      It happens. We’d prefer to not see it happen, but it happens.

      The reality is that we DO need more surface combatants, both large and small, and we do need more Virginia class attack boats, and we need an Ohio class SSBN replacement, and we need another CVN and its supporting task group, all to meet current challenges.

      It will be up to Congress to appropriate the funds to build the kind of defense that is needed. Congress may succeed, or it may fail, in that regard.