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Esper’s Fantasy Fleet

The SecDef’s 500-ship plan is an exercise in wishful thinking that avoids hard choices.

This past week, Defense Secretary Mark Esper began to share details of his new vision for the future of the Navy. His plan, with a name seemingly ripped from a videogame box – “Battle Force 2045” – calls for enlarging the fleet from 300 ships to roughly 500. For those of us who believe that sea power is important to national security, a robust call for a bigger Navy sounds great. As soon, however, as one begins to examine the details, it becomes clear that Esper’s plan is pure fantasy. 

The single biggest flaw in what Esper has shared to date is his utter failure to explain how the nation and its Navy will pay for all those new vessels. The Navy can barely meet its financial obligations today, with a budget of just over $200 billion and a fleet of just under 300 ships. Even if Esper could achieve significant economies of scale, a two-thirds jump in fleet size might boost costs 40 or 50 percent, requiring an increase in the Navy’s annual budget of $80 billion to $100 billion. Construction costs to create a fleet of 355 ships, for example, let alone 500, would add almost $30 billion to the Navy’s shipbuilding budget and $38 billion to annual maintenance costs, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Getting to 500, even if the ships are small and lightly crewed, would almost certainly add at least $20 billion, and probably much more. Today, no one on Capitol Hill, from either party, believes this kind of build-up is in the cards.  

Yes, 500 ships are theoretically better than 300, and if I were told that cost was no object and asked to design the ideal fleet, I am sure I would propose 500 or 600 ships. But strategic planning is worthless unless it reflects financial reality. The bipartisan Congressional Budget Office currently projects that the federal budget deficit will explode to an unthinkable $3.7 trillion in fiscal year 2020. Given this fact, there is strong bipartisan consensus that Defense Department budgets will remain flat or decline over the next decade. 

For these reasons, Esper has asked the wrong question. We should not be designing the ultimate fantasy fleet. Instead, we must all ask: what is the most powerful fleet we can field if the U.S. Navy budget remains relatively flat? The answer is clearly not a 200-ship increase. 

Because Esper’s plan is not grounded in fiscal reality, it avoids making hard choices. The secretary has, in essence, glued 200 new uncrewed vessels onto the current fleet plan. Very revealingly, he has failed to address the central force assessment issue the Navy faces. By calling for between eight and 11 carrier task forces – we currently have 11 – he artfully dodges the politically and strategically challenging question of whether we should reduce our investment in expensive big fleet carriers. 

His plan also runs the risk of creating a hollow force. Navy readiness has already been stretched to the breaking point under the Trump Administration, which has under-funded maintenance, training, education, and sailor headcount. If we move even more funds from readiness to shipbuilding, as Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite just proposed, this will worsen.

Esper’s reliance on uncrewed ships also ignores a basic fact: it will require the Navy to lead the world in networking and information technology, the precise areas in which the Navy is currently weak. Designing and building remote-controlled ships and subs is not a particularly big challenge, but designing robust, secure networks that can control hundreds of these vessels in combat without hacking or degradation is a technological task of the highest order, with no room for mistakes. The Navy, however, struggles to run a successful basic network, let alone the super-network of the future. The Navy currently operates the deeply flawed NMCI and over 140 out-of-date legacy networks that cannot talk to one another, a problem service leaders vowed to fix twenty years ago. This is not a very good foundation for a revolution in networked naval warfare. To achieve what Esper takes for granted will require a massive change in the composition and the education of the Navy force and a recognition that in the very near future, IT will be more important than fields like aviation. Esper’s plan is silent on this challenge and the massive cultural change it will entail. 

It is a little odd for the Trump administration to release a radical new vision for the Navy in October of its fourth year. It is an interesting conversation piece, giving the Navy’s strategists and think tank experts a vision to think about and discuss. Parts of it may ultimately inform a sober and responsible plan for the future.  But because Esper’s vision operates in budget and IT fantasy land, its value as a serious planning document, regardless of the outcome of the November presidential election, is nil.