The Ford-class aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) and the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75) transit the Atlantic Ocean June 4, 2020, the first time a Ford-class and a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier operated together underway.

The Ford-class aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) and the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75) transit the Atlantic Ocean June 4, 2020, the first time a Ford-class and a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier operated together underway. U.S. Navy / Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Ruben Reed

The Navy’s New Long-Range Shipbuilding Plan Is More Like a Menu

With uncertainty rising at home and abroad, service leaders decided to offer Congress a trio of scenarios.

The U.S. Navy’s new long-range shipbuilding plan is actually three scenarios, reflecting the rising difficulty of looking more than about a decade ahead, service officials said Wednesday.

The 30-year plan—this year’s edition of the annual update required by Congress—offers definite quantities of various ship types only out to 2027. To cover the rest of the years through 2052, the 28-page document offers three sets of numbers—albeit with a common plan for ship retirements. 

The multiple options reflect the difficulty of predicting budgets, technological advances, and Chinese and Russian moves, Vice Adm. Scott Conn, the deputy chief of naval operations for warfighting requirements and capabilities, told reporters Wednesday.

The plan’s first two “alternatives” assume no real budget growth and reflect analysis from last year’s shipbuilding plan, 2022 appropriations, and the 2023 presidential budget proposal, the document says. The third alternative, which is based on the Navy’s Integrated Naval Force Structure Assessment, would require spending an extra $75 billion (in 2022 dollars) between 2028 to 2052; it also assumes that industry will deliver the ships on time and budget. None of the options reflects the Biden administration’s weeks-old National Defense Strategy

“As far as the Navy, certainly we would want to have the higher line, but we recognize that there is, you know, the overall administration has a bunch of priorities and where the Navy fits in… is something that Congress and the administration will have to figure out,” said Jay Stefany, who is performing the duties of assistant Navy secretary for research, development, and acquisition. 

In each of the next five years—the most definite part of the plan—the Navy intends to buy two Virginia-class fast attack submarines, two Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, and zero aircraft carriers. The next half-decade will also see the arrival of the service’s top procurement priority: the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine. Three are planned for purchase from 2024 to 2029.

The plan calls for retiring 77 ships over the next five years, including two aircraft carriers and 11 littoral combat ships that are much younger than their 25-year expected lifecycle.

Depending on which option is chosen, the Navy could have as many as 363 or as few as 28 manned ships by 2045; as many as 11 aircraft carriers or as few as 10 (the plan omits entirely a proposed CVL light carrier); between 70 to 80 large surface combatants; and between 40 to 59 amphibious warfare ships.  

GOP lawmakers were quick to criticize the plan. Within hours of its release, the ranking members of the House Armed Forces Committee and its seapower subcommittee released a scathing statement. 

“The Biden administration’s 30 year shipbuilding plan reduces our ability to protect our aircraft carrier strike groups, reduces Navy’s ability to eliminate an enemy’s minefield, reduces the Marine Corps ability to conduct forcible entry missions and reduces almost 10% of our fleet’s ability to launch missiles,” wrote Reps. Mike Rogers of Alabama and Rob Wittman of Virginia. “Reducing our naval power to save a couple of dollars now puts our warfighters in a dangerous and incurable position when faced with China’s growing naval power.”

Wisconsin Rep. Mike Gallagher said in a statement that the plan is “fundamentally unserious. In fact, it is not even a plan. ​​Instead of a clear articulation of the Navy the nation needs, it presents three options—which means the service has no clear vision for where it wants to go nor how it will get there.”

The three alternatives are actually useful for future decision makers, considering that President Joe Biden’s administration will be ending by the close of the five-year Future Years Defense Program, or FYDP, said Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.

“So essentially, what they've done with this is to say, ‘Over the FYDP, we're going to make choices that are kind of locked in. And then after the FYDP, then other people are going to start to come in and probably be able to alter the fleet’s design’,” Clark said. “‘So we want to show what some of those alternatives could be given where we leave you at the end of this administration’.”

However, the options do not provide a sense of what the Navy currently feels its overall balance of ships should be in the next 10 years based on its priorities, he said.

The report (formally, “Report to Congress on the Annual Long-Range Plan for Construction of Naval Vessels for Fiscal Year 2023”) is required annually. But it follows several years of upheaval and uncertainty in the Navy’s efforts to figure out what its future fleet can and should include. In 2019, the Navy launched a far-reaching naval force structure assessment—an effort that then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper commandeered the following year after deeming the Navy’s efforts too light on cost data and too heavy on old concepts. Under Esper’s guidance, the Navy released Battle Force 2045 in October 2020, just a month before the Trump administration was voted out of office. 

Last June, the Biden administration took its own first crack at a long-range shipbuilding plan: the fiscal 2022 edition of the required report. Perhaps the biggest change in that FY22 report was its effort to edge away from the 355-ship goal that had ruled Navy aspirations since 2016.

The FY23 plan released on Wednesday was 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. Last August, for example, 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.