Gen. David Berger, Marine Corps Commandant, left; Adm. Michael Gilday, chief of naval operations; Adm. Karl Schultz, Coast Guard commandant; and Peter Daly, Naval Institute CEO, speak at WEST 2022.

Gen. David Berger, Marine Corps Commandant, left; Adm. Michael Gilday, chief of naval operations; Adm. Karl Schultz, Coast Guard commandant; and Peter Daly, Naval Institute CEO, speak at WEST 2022. Defense One / Bradley Peniston

Expect a Navy Fleet Plan of 500 Ships, CNO Says

Adm. Gilday says recent exercises and several years of analysis are helping the service converge on numbers for its long-range shipbuilding plan.

SAN DIEGO—The Navy’s long-range shipbuilding plan should call for at least 500 crewed and uncrewed vessels, based on data from recent exercises and several years of analysis, the service’s top officer said Friday.

“We’re doing a lot of work to look at things differently,” Adm. Mike Gilday told an audience at the WEST 2022 conference here, “thinking about how we would fight differently, in distributed fashion across a wide vast ocean like the Pacific, in terms of integrating all domains simultaneously.”

The chief of naval operations ran down a list of ship types and the numbers to expect in the long-range plan.

“My view on carrier aviation remains unchanged: I think we need 12 carriers,” Gilday said. “I think we need a strong amphibious force, to include probably nine big-deck amphibs and another 19 or 20 [smaller amphibious warships] to support them.”

“Sixty destroyers and probably 50 frigates. Seventy attack submarines and a dozen ballistic missile submarines. About 100 support ships. And probably, looking into the future, 150 unmanned” vessels, he said.

The fleet plan that flows from the current assessment work will be the Navy’s fourth in recent years. It will follow 2019’s integrated naval force structure assessment; 2020’s Battle Force 2045, completed under then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper; and the Biden administration’s first long-range shipbuilding document, released last June. (For more background, see the Congressional Research Service’s newly updated report on naval force structure issues.) 

On Friday, the CNO said Battle Force 2045 was “the one that I’ve based my best advice on,” because it was led by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, not just the Navy and Marine Corps. 

“Based on that, based on the Large Scale Exercise we did over the summer, based on the integrated battle problem we just did in 5th Fleet with some 100 unmanned platforms over the past few weeks, I’ve concluded, consistent with the analysis, that we need a naval force of over 500 ships,” he said.

Gilday added, “I think that kind of naval force, that kind of distributed force, is consistent with the analysis we see from the Joint Staff and [the Office of the Secretary of Defense] with the Joint Warfighting Concept. I think it speaks to the vulnerabilities we hear called out by the Joint Staff and the Chairman’s risk assessment.” 

Gilday also said the Navy has continued to drive down the number of ship-days lost to unexpected delays in shipyard work, a focus of his since he ascended to the Navy’s top job in 2019. That year, he said, the fleet lost 7,700 days to such delays. Last year, the number was down to 2,700, “and the goal is to drive that to zero,” he said. He said this progress came far less from throwing money at the problem and far more from better planning.

He added that more than half of those days were consumed by the few remaining Ticonderoga-class cruisers, ships that Gilday has sought Congressional permission to retire. He said the Navy entered this year’s budget negotiations asking to retire all seven Ticos, but the 2022 defense authorization act requires the service to keep two of them. 

“I wish the number was zero,” he said.

Currently, the Navy has about 100 ships deployed, including almost 30 in the European Command’s area, nearly that many in the western Pacific, and a contingent in the Central Command region, Gilday said.

Clarification: An earlier version of this report was unclear about the Navy's opening position in the 2022 budget negotiations. Service officials proposed to retire all seven remaining cruisers.