The 350-Ship Fantasy: It’s Time for the Navy to Think Radically About a Smaller Fleet

September 15, 2017

A 350-ship Navy: President Donald Trump promised it during his campaign; the service has released studies and strategies supporting it; and analysts and advocates, including influential members of Congress, have pushed plans for it. However, political and industrial constraints mean a fleet of that size almost certainly won’t happen. Meanwhile, the Navy faces a strategic crossroads. China’s burgeoning capabilities and Russia’s increasingly assertive behavior mean U.S. naval strategy requires radical re-thinking if the United States is to maintain its warfighting advantages over advanced adversaries. But while both are capable potential adversaries, history suggests that neither threat is sufficiently compelling to motivate the political will to overcome either the budgetary or shipbuilding constraints on substantially — or quickly — expanding the fleet. The Navy ought to focus on maximizing what it can do with the fleet it will have without counting on one that it won’t.

A Bigger Fleet, Faster and Cheaper?

As a force provider, the U.S. Navy conducts a periodic Force Structure Assessment to determine the types and numbers of ships it needs to meet the requirements of its four-star Combatant Commanders. The assessment is meant to be grounded in mission requirements derived from national strategy guidance and independent of political or resource constraints. Those numbers are subsequently incorporated into the Navy’s long-range shipbuilding plans.

The Navy released its latest assessment in December 2016, announcing a requirement for a minimum 355-ship fleet, up significantly from the old requirement for 308 ships, and roughly in line with Trump’s campaign promise. Some increase in fleet size was necessary to reverse the hollowing-out experienced since 9/11, when operational demands increased while the fleet shrank by almost 15 percent. Anyone who served in the Navy in the last decade can attest to the extended deployments and cancelled or deferred maintenance that resulted.

However, the circumstances around the 2016 assessment’s release suggest some degree of political opportunism. A completed 2016 assessment was expected in August or September, before the election. When it was finally released in December, there were reports that the Navy revised its assessment up after Trump’s unexpected victory.

Just before the assessment’s release, both Navy officials and shipbuilding executives were optimistic about prospects for building the 350-ship fleet the president-elect had promised with which the Navy’s about-to-be-released assessment would align. This optimism was unfounded. Since 2001 the Navy’s force structure requirement fluctuated between 310 and 325 ships while the fleet declined precipitously to a low of 271 ships in 2015. The political-industrial factors and ambiguous threats that bedeviled those earlier force structure goals had little to do with who was in the White House and had not fundamentally changed on November 8th.

As progress stalled over the following months, the Navy released a new strategic white paper, The Future Navy, which not only doubled down on the 350-ship fleet, but put forward a vision for what it describes as “exponentially” greater capabilities that would not only be achieved cost-effectively, but on a far faster timeline than other projections indicated feasible, concluding that “we need this more powerful fleet in the 2020s, not the 2040s.”

Authorized ≠ Appropriated

Politically, building a bigger fleet isn’t especially contentious on its own. The SHIPS act, which proposes to make a 355-ship fleet U.S. policy, has bi-partisan co-sponsors and broad support, and was included in the final defense authorization bill in the House of Representatives. However, authorizing that fleet — and, more to the point, paying for it — isn’t a standalone question, but part of the byzantine defense authorization and appropriations process. As much as the SHIPS act might sound like progress, one of the bill’s sponsors gave up the game when he called the legislation “a strong signal” going into the authorization process. Left unspoken is that the bill provides no funds for additional ships, and political prospects for most of that funding making it into the final budget are slim.

The spending caps imposed on the defense budget in 2011 by the Budget Control Act are where the political path to 350 ships breaks down. While the 2016 election gave Republicans control of both the executive branch and Congress, it did not give them a sufficient majority in the Senate to modify the spending limits imposed by the sequestration if Senate Democrats threaten a filibuster. In fact, the 2016 election made amending the Budget Control Act caps even harder because the Republican majority in the Senate dropped from 54 seats to 52. Any budget deal that exceeds the law’s spending caps — which remain in effect until 2021, past Trump’s term — now requires the cooperation of at least eight Democrats.

Congress could still choose to fund a 350-ship building plan in a budget that stays under the caps, but it would require taking funds from other programs or services that have their own champions and constituencies, so any increase is likely to be marginal. Consequently, none of the Republican proposals going into the final budget negotiations put the Navy on a path to 350 ships. Both the House and Senate versions of the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act authorize the Navy to build 13 ships, five more than the administration’s original budget request. But the House defense appropriations subcommittee, responsible for funding those authorized expenditures, proposes paying for only 11 of those ships. This is still three more than the Pentagon asked for, but less than the Navy’s accelerated build plan to put it on a trajectory towards a 350-ship fleet. The Senate’s defense appropriation subcommittee is still considering its bill, but it is expected to be much closer to the limits imposed by the Budget Control Act.

In response to as-yet-rhetorical plans for a 350-ship fleet, the Congressional Budget Office analyzed buildup alternatives over 15, 20, 25, and 30 years. While still about five years longer than the timeframe in The Future Navy, the 15-year plan aligns with the Navy’s articulated need most closely. But this plan fails to deliver the required attack submarines in time, the vessel that combatant commanders say is the most critical to countering high-end competitors like China. Further, it costs at least $33 billion a year, nearly double what Congress appropriated for shipbuilding last year, and $12 billion more than the House Appropriations Defense subcommittee proposes giving the Navy for shipbuilding next year.

To be sure, Congress has cut deals to increase the defense budget above Budget Control Act limits every year since it went into effect and appropriated about 10 percent more for shipbuilding than the president’s budget requested those years, around $15 to $19 billion. However, this falls far short of not only the $33 billion per year estimate for an aggressive 15-year buildup, but also the $25 billion per year that a more conservative 30-year buildup would cost.

Those earlier deals also depended on Republicans consenting to commensurate spending increases in domestic programs favored by Democrats. Even modest defense increases may be more difficult this year. As a congressman, Trump’s budget chief voted against defense increases that were not matched by non-defense cuts, raising questions about whether such a budget deal would be signed by this White House. Prominent Republicans have warned the administration that defense increases at the expense of domestic spending are “politically impossible” and members of Congress from both parties are predicting the upcoming defense budget negotiations will be a “train wreck.” Since Congress needed to pass both a budget and a debt-ceiling increase by the end of September, it was questionable whether there would be a budget at all. Trump’s surprise funding deal with Congressional Democrats means that the Navy’s shipbuilding budget will default back to current levels under a continuing resolution, at least through December (and potentially much longer), throwing shipbuilding plans into even greater disarray.

Who Will Build It?

Even if Congress allocates the required money, capacity limits in the shipbuilding industry mean building enough additional ships on the Navy’s timeline is likely impossible. Getting to 350 ships doesn’t mean building just forty more ships over the next thirty years. Because older ships need to be replaced as they retire, the Congressional Research Service estimates the Navy will need to build over 70 additional ships over the next 30 years to have about 350 ships sometime by the mid-2040s (still 20 years after the Navy’s target date). And as the Congressional Budget Office noted, the Navy’s biggest shipbuilding challenge is ramping up production of attack submarines. The 2016 Force Structure Assessment calls for 66 of these hulls, but the Navy already faces a serious shortfall in the 2020s when inventory will drop to 41 hulls, against the old requirement of 48.

The Navy says that shipyards have the capacity to build an additional 29 ships over the next seven years (at the politically untenable price tag of an extra $150 billon). But even if the shipyards can physically accommodate building more hulls, the qualified labor pool will constrain the scale of expansion in production. Industry veterans say it takes five years of experience before a shipbuilder is truly proficient, and some of the most skilled workers, like welders for submarines, can take more than seven years to train. If shipbuilders begin ramping up their workforces today (and without solid contracts, they won’t) it will be halfway to when the Navy says it needs its expanded fleet before the workforce will be trained to build most of it.

Further, even if those workers are hired and contracts are inked, the relative inexperience of the expanded shipbuilding workforce means those contracts are unlikely to be delivered on time. This phenomenon already caused delays in the Virginia­-class attack submarine production line after the build-rate was doubled from one hull per year to two, forcing a rapid expansion of the workforce that diluted its overall experience level. A joint study conducted by the Navy and shipbuilding industry shows the capacity to build seven additional submarines by 2030 but acknowledges that the plan’s feasibility depends on consistent funding for additional workforce expansion, something the legislative math does not suggest the Navy or shipbuilders should expect in the near term.

China is a Challenge, but is it a Politically Compelling Threat?

The Future Navy articulates a compelling use for 350 ships in the next decade, but not a compelling case for building that 350-ship fleet on such a short timeframe. Bryan McGrath recently noted that if the United States is going to build up its Navy on this scale, “the president needs a better reason for a 350-ship Navy than his desire to command one.”

Building the Navy up to the Force Structure Assessment-recommended 355 ships would be an increase of nearly one-sixth over existing plans. There have been two previous peacetime fleet build-ups on that scale, the first in the 1930s leading up to the outbreak of World War II, and the second, President Reagan’s 600-ship navy buildup at the beginning of what turned out to be the end of the Cold War. To justify the 350-ship fleet buildup, The Future Navy cites a variety of other global threats and obligations, such as Iran, North Korea, and transnational terrorism, but the principal driver of a bigger fleet is the rise of another Asian maritime power: China. However, while the Chinese fleet and Russian naval technology in 2017 represent real challenges, they do not resemble the strategic stakes faced in 1938 or 1981, and thus do not fuel political urgency.

The critical difference between the rise of Japan during the inter-war period and the rise of China now is that China’s military is only a theoretical threat, not a demonstrated one. When the inter-war Naval Acts were passed, Japan had already occupied Manchuria and was engaged in a brutal war to conquer the rest of eastern China. For the United States, this demonstrated that Japan was willing to use extraordinary levels of force to expand its empire. For all of China’s recent coercive activity and significant capacity to project force in the Western Pacific, it has not demonstrated a similar willingness to use military force. Whether or not it is wise to wait and see if they do, the current ambiguity of China’s threat weakens political arguments for anything more than a marginal buildup.

Some may object that China’s conduct in the South China Sea is not exactly peaceful. After all, it seized the Paracel islands through force in 1974, Johnson South Reef (and its neighbors) in 1988, and occupied Mischief Reef in 1995. But these skirmishes over uninhabited reefs and islands are not remotely as threatening as Japan’s war against China, in which it conquered nearly all of China’s heavily populated eastern and northeastern provinces, killing over 1 million Chinese soldiers and leading to the death of as many as 20 million civilians.

Likewise, Russia today has muscularly reasserted itself in conflicts from Syria to Ukraine, and is increasingly engaging in Cold War-style airborne antics against U.S. ships and aircraft. But the geostrategic threat from Russia today pales in comparison to the risk of nuclear war in the early 1980s, when the Reagan administration began its naval buildup.

Charting a Track Forward

Since the spring of 2017, it’s been clear that the administration lacks a solution to Congress’ intractable legislative math, and that the shipbuilding industry had overestimated the ease and speed with which it could ramp up production.

In that context, The Future Navy could be viewed as both a charge to the Navy’s planners and strategists and a political rallying point for the cause of a 350-ship fleet. But while advocates in Congress hold hearings to figure out how to build it, and analysts and pundits try to build political momentum for it, the administration has been silent. President Trump has not mentioned “350 ships” since he was elected despite several speeches at high-profile Navy venues that presented natural opportunities to make the case. His secretary of defense hasn’t talked about 350 ships either, and the number doesn’t appear in defense planning and budget guidance. At his confirmation hearing, the newly sworn-in secretary of the navy endorsed the number generally, but also left wiggle room by suggesting that new technologies might allow a 300-ship fleet to have capabilities equivalent to a 355-ship one.

If The Future Navy represents the broad direction of the Navy’s thinking, then it offers a towering vision but not a convincing means of achieving it. The aggregate effect of its bigger, more capable, more innovative fleet is an “exponential” leap in capability and performance that is somehow accomplished on a linear timeframe and budget — “in a way that’s affordable, with low technological risk, on a well understood schedule.” This is selling an unachievable strategic vision, or, at minimum, one saddled with unacceptable risk.

As an undergraduate, an engineering professor once explained to me that any plan that depends on above-average organizational performance is a plan to fail. The “exponential” fleet that The Future Navy lays out will demand not just above-average performance, but exceptional performance, in the literal sense of the word. I was also taught the manufacturing axiom that you can build things quickly, cheaply, and well, but that only two of those three qualities are achievable at a time. Whatever The Future Navy’s charge, if the Navy gets a bigger fleet, it either won’t be soon, affordable, or sufficiently transformational.

The latest attempt to bridge the gap between the 350-ship vision and political and industrial realities is a hybrid plan that mates accelerated shipbuilding with service-life extensions of existing hulls. This plan, which calls for building 27 additional ships over the next decade while upgrading existing ships to extend their service life five to 10 years, could bring the fleet up to about 350 by 2030. While perhaps the most realistic plan, Congress is still no likelier to appropriate the extra $150 billion it requires, and inexperienced shipyard workers are still likely to cause delays.

Perhaps more importantly, the plan focuses on building a certain number of ships, but not necessarily the types of ships that are most needed. First and foremost, the plan doesn’t fix the U.S. Navy’s shortfall in submarines — arguably the most critical asset to counter high-end adversaries. Second, unless Congress commits to funding accelerated shipbuilding not just for the next decade but the next three, extending the service lives of existing ships only inflates the fleet size temporarily. Goosing the fleet size this way could set the Navy up for a dramatic contraction in the 2030s, akin to when it shed nearly 150 ships between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the start of the Clinton administration.

The Navy should come to terms with these tradeoffs and focus its creativity and intellectual resources on what it can — and more importantly what it cannot — do with the 300-odd ships it knows it will have in the 2020s. The Navy should always press its case for the number of ships it believes it needs, but it has to make plans pegged to the smaller fleet it is likelier to have. The sooner it does that, the sooner it will be able to present the hard strategic choices it owes to its warfighting customers and national leadership.


Steven Stashwick is an independent analyst based in New York, and a regular contributing author to The Diplomat on East Asian naval affairs and U.S.-China competition. He served on active duty in the U.S. Navy as a surface warfare officer for ten years, deploying numerous times to the Western Pacific and completing graduate studies in International Relations at the University of Chicago. He still serves in the U.S. Navy Reserve and writes in a strictly personal capacity. Follow him on Twitter: @StevenStashwick

Image: U.S. Navy photo/Bryan Mai