The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Sterett (DDG 104) fires its Mark 45 5-inch gun during a live-fire exercise in the Indian Ocean with the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group, July 20, 2020.

The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Sterett (DDG 104) fires its Mark 45 5-inch gun during a live-fire exercise in the Indian Ocean with the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group, July 20, 2020. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Logan C. Kellums/Released

The Navy Needs More Ships — and Vision, Too

From shipyards to sea, the Navy needs to show more passionate leadership articulating what its future must be, and why.

In 2016, the Navy determined that it would need a fleet of 355 battle force ships to execute its mission. Getting to this number of ships is strategically imperative. So, too, is being able to train people to operate, maintain and build them.

Since that 2016 assessment, the Navy has grown little, but its challenges have dramatically increased. If the fleet is ever going to reach the necessary size, the service will have to embrace new approaches and unmanned platforms. It will also require a vision driven by passionate leadership.

The Navy’s situation arises from decisions made at home, and our competitors, over the last two decades. Today’s need for a larger Navy is driven largely by the tremendous growth in China’s Navy and the steady improvement of Russia’s naval forces. On that point there is bi-partisan agreement, as was seen most recently at the Aug. 4 confirmation hearing of John Whitley to be the Pentagon’s director of the Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation, or CAPE, office. 

The exact number and composition of ships needed remains open to debate. That debate should be settled with release of the much-delayed Integrated Naval Force Structure Analysis. In a surprise move, Defense Secretary Mark Esper and his team of program analysts recently assumed control of that assessment. In the absence of a strong Navy voice or vision for what the future Navy must be, we can only guess where this analysis will land.

Meanwhile, day-to-day life in the Navy remains dangerous. Collisions resulted in the deaths of sailors in 2017. Fire recently gutted the USS Bonhomme Richard. In response, the Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. Michael Gilday, affirmed in a recent interview with the Washington Post’s David Ignatius that the Navy is prioritizing seamanship and cultural issues. That’s certainly appropriate. But given today’s overseas challenges, the Navy needs more than an inward focus from its leadership.

Without a clear and accessible vision of how a larger Navy competes in great power competition, the effort to grow the Navy from today’s 299 ships will falter in the headwinds of a questioning Congress, distracted leadership, and a confused electorate. And, most importantly, as the fleet operates with a shortage of ships, captains will struggle to find the time to adequately train their crews.

China and Russia will continue to press their interests against ours at sea. This will not allow the Navy the luxury of a timeout to sort out either its culture or its seamanship. Real action is needed today, propelled by leadership with a vision and the fire to drive the Navy forward.

Greater reliance on more numerous, small, manned and unmanned warships might be one way out of this dilemma, assuming experimentation proves their operational relevance and reliability. Secretary Esper hinted at this possibility when speaking at the U.S. Naval Academy graduation. Critical will be finding the right mix between a few large versus numerous small warships, a topic of perennial debate in naval circles. The answer, as in most things in life, lies near the middle.

Getting the ship mix right is important to ensure a sustained, deterrent presence around the world, especially in decisive maritime theaters such as the South China Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean.

The force-structure analysis is supposed to answer the questions about the numbers and types of ships needed. But building and operating such a fleet raises still more questions. Delivery dates for specific ships relative advances of our competitors are a matter of strategic importance. Yet no public articulation of this currently exists.

Another strategic challenge will be to match growth in ships with growth in the number of trained sailors, officers and shipyard workers required to operate, maintain and build the future fleet.

Yet another concern is the capacity of public and private shipyards to build and sustain the fleet as it grows. The Navy’s 20-year, $21 billion Shipyard Infrastructure Optimization Program begins to address longstanding capacity shortfalls, but more is needed.

Finally, a predictable long-term commitment of budget and resources is necessary. Block purchases of multiple ships are cost-effective, such as purchasing two aircraft carriers at once saving taxpayers an estimated $4 billion and giving industry much needed predictability.

Of course, any 30-year shipbuilding plan will be subject to change. But a plan in place can be beneficial in assessing potential trade-offs as conditions change. The bigger problem is that merely having a plan to grow the fleet has not assured the fleet will grow.

Better management of changing political demands, deeper collaboration with Congress and industry, and a clear vision for the Navy’s role in great-power competition is necessary to ensure the nation remains on track in delivering the Navy the nation needs. Failure to meet the challenges outlined above can result, at best, in missed shipbuilding targets. At worst, it could lead to losing a war at sea.

Building navies takes years and requires a plan that is flexible but backed with force and resources to ensure adherence. Unfortunately, today our military and especially the Navy is being outpaced in capacity and losing its capability lead over China. Russia’s advances only make the problem worse.

To compete effectively, the U.S. must get more ships to sea—and get them there quickly. The nation does not have the luxury of slowing an already lethargic shipbuilding program. Closing yawning capacity gaps in the near term is an imperative. At the same time, the Navy cannot ignore the need to address cultural and seamanship issues. Once reliability concerns are satisfied, unmanned or lightly-manned naval platforms can help mitigate both challenges.

While a good Integrated Naval Force Structure Analysis is important, it is nothing without the vision and fire provided by passionate leadership ensuring the nation gets the Navy it needs.

Brent Sadler is senior fellow for naval warfare and advanced technology and the Heritage Foundation's Center for National Defense, and a 26-year veteran of the U.S. Navy.