An AV-8B Harrier takes off from the flight deck of the Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima (LHD 7), Sept. 21, 2021.

An AV-8B Harrier takes off from the flight deck of the Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima (LHD 7), Sept. 21, 2021. U.S. Navy / Seaman Isaac Rodriguez

US Navy’s Latest Plan for Its Future May Not Come Until 2023, Says Top Admiral

It’s the fourth attempt in four years to define the future of the Navy.

The U.S. Navy’s latest attempt to lay out a plan to compose its future fleet may not arrive until 2023, the chief of naval operations said Thursday. That may not satisfy lawmakers disappointed by this year’s lack of an updated shipbuilding plan.

“We're just in the beginning stages of framing what kind of questions we want that study to actually get after,” Adm. Mike Gilday said in the keynote interview for Defense One’s State of the Navy event.

The fleet plan that eventually flows from the force-design study will be the Navy’s fourth in recent years. It will follow 2019’s integrated naval force structure assessment; Battle Force 2045, completed in October 2020 under then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper; and the Biden administration’s first long-range shipbuilding document, released in June.

The new study will be shaped in large part by experiments and exercises designed to try out and refine new operating concepts, such as Distributed Maritime Operations, Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations, and Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment. In August, the Navy and Marines Corps ran Large Scale Exercise 21, a 14-day wargame that tested these concepts and the services’ ability to coordinate multiple forces around the globe. Gilday said he expects detailed analysis of LSE 21, including lessons for future force development, in December.

Also feeding the study will be a new operational unit equipped with a variety of unmanned drones and vessels instead of traditional ships or aircraft. Established earlier this month in Bahrain, Task Force 59 will take on real-world missions, including informing situational awareness across the Persian Gulf; tracking Iranian forces above, on, and under the water; escorting U.S. and allied military and civilian vessels; and more. 

But TF59’s “real focus” is to help the Navy understand how to use remote-controlled and autonomous systems—as Gilday put it: “to inform the refinement and the maturation of our operating concepts.” 

The new unit will also help figure out what to buy. “It helps us make informed decisions about what unmanned platforms we should double down on and which ones we should sundown very quickly,” he said.

Gilday declined to say much about where the next study might take the fleet. And he said that some decisions, such as changing the Navy’s overseas posture, would depend on the results of a global force posture study being conducted by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, which must itself be informed by a new national security strategy from the Biden White House. 

Instead, the admiral said, “I can tell you where we don't want to be,” recalling the summer of 2017, when deadly collisions forced the Navy to reckon with straining conditions that left sailors exhausted and ships operating at reduced readiness.

Appointed CNO in August 2019, Gilday soon became an outspoken advocate for a larger Navy budget. That hasn’t happened, he noted on Thursday. 

“What I've said consistently, including my posture hearings this past spring, is that the Navy's top line has been relatively flat since 2010,” he said. “What I'm trying to do, what we're trying to do as a Navy, is deliver the most capable Navy that we can based on the money that we have.”

That’s one reason for the focus on network-enabled warfare, connecting people and platforms in ever-more-advantageous and cost-saving ways, said Bryan Clark, a naval expert who is working with the Navy on the new force-design study.

“They're looking at a more distributed and complex force to try to compensate for the fact that they may not be able to build it up to the degree that the Navy might have originally wanted,” Clark said, at another State of the Navy panel discussion on Thursday. 

Gilday has also pushed to increase readiness, and at least some of those efforts are paying off. Warships are sailing with crews that are much closer to full strength, he said. Two years ago, perhaps 15,000 of the Navy’s roughly 140,000 billets were going unfilled. 

“We’ve driven that down” to “just 3 or 4 percent of the total,” Gilday said. He also said the Navy is making good progress in shrinking the amount of time warships spend in shipyards for maintenance.

Some members of Congress aren’t convinced that the Navy is heading in the right direction. In the Thursday panel with Clark, Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., expanded on his July complaints that the shipbuilding plan submitted along with the 2022 budget proposal was incomplete.

Lawmakers need “more detail about, you know, exactly which ships and which classes. There's no detailed 30-year program there. It doesn't show us how they're going to get there. You know, if you're going to divest and reinvest, you better show how that's going to happen. There are no graphs and tables for funding. You have to be able to show: ‘What's the path forward?’ And how are you going to use resources? And then what is your resource request to be in order to achieve this,” Wittman said. “Those are things that Congress needs as a guide, they're things that we have to have. And if they are lacking, the appropriators are not going to say, ‘Oh, gosh, you know, we see the path forward that the Navy has charted.’” 

Gilday pointed to his “CNO NAVPLAN,” a sweeping document that sets out his vision for the Navy and establishes or hones several lines of effort. 

“If you take a look at our NAVPLAN that we published about a year ago, it's not just sitting on the shelf,” the CNO said. “There are about 17 discrete areas that I have, that we have a flag officer that's in charge of, that we have a cadence of accountability for that organization.” 

For each of these areas—maintenance, network security, contested logistics, and more—“we have tried to develop a mission statement, put somebody in charge, give discrete timelines on deliverables, and to hold people accountable so that we can get after this stuff in this decade when it counts,” he said. “When we believe it needs to count, to put us in a position of advantage against China.”