With the inclusion of language mandating a 355-ship Navy, the first National Defense Authorization Act (commonly called the defense budget) President Trump signed in office did more than increase the Pentagon’s budget. His signature set off a chain reaction among Navy and other defense officials, each trying to find some way to grow the fleet per the new national policy, while still acknowledging the very real limits set by funding.
Ship construction efforts have been expanded, and the fleet does indeed expect to grow in the coming years, but those numbers will ultimately plateau and begin to drop again soon thereafter, as a number of the U.S. Navy’s surface combatant vessels reach the ends of their projected service lives. This drop-in numbers will ultimately be recouped through new ship construction, but as the Navy works to replace retiring ships instead of adding to the fleet, the road to 355 is projected to be a long one — with most experts agreeing that it will take until well into the 2050s, and the Navy refusing to even predict its budgeting endeavors that far out.
However, NAVSEA Commander Vice Adm. Tom Moore has recently begun championing a strategy many believe is the U.S. Navy’s only hope of growing at the rate expected by lawmakers. While new ship construction will mean the future of the force, Moore and company believe old ships are the answer to growing the fleet in the short term.
Put simply, he wants to keep the Navy’s ships in the water well beyond their current projected lifespans, swelling the number of ships in the fleet to 355 as soon as 2032.
We sell our FFGs [Frigates] to other countries and they keep them for another 20 years. We keep carriers, Enterprise, around for 52, 53. And we’re going to look at service-life extensions for Nimitz-class [aircraft carriers]; Congress asked us to do that. So from an HM&E standpoint, steel hulls, we know a lot about them and we’re pretty confident we can operate them for the intervals we gave to the Pentagon.”
Moore’s suggestions, which were outlined in an internal memo that made the rounds as far back as April, emphasizes that modern ship construction allows for a more modular approach to upgrading weapons systems, meaning it is easier and more cost effective to update platforms in today’s Navy than it ever has been before. The modern emphasis on vertical launched ballistic missiles, for instance, means aging ships can still carry modern platforms. Moore said,
The bottom line is, if you’re willing to do the maintenance, from a naval architecture standpoint … we can manage all that. So, I’m not worried about the service life of it. I’m more focused on the combat systems side of it, but I believe in this era of open architecture, Aegis, vertical launch systems, that the combat system can maintain its relevance for a long period of time. That was not the case when I was a young officer serving on a DDG-2 Adams-class destroyer … The opportunity is there, and I think we’re going to work on that.”
- Proposed lifespan extensions under Moore’s plan would include:
- Wasp-class amphibious assault ships could be extended from 40 years to between 46 and 53 years
- San Antonio-class amphibious transport docks could be extended from 40 to between 47 and 53 years
- Whidbey Island-class dock landing ships could be extended from 40 to between 45 to 52 years
- Littoral Combat Ships could be extended from 25 years to between 32 and 35 years
- Lewis and Clark-class dry cargo ships could be extended from 40 to 50 years]
Of course, this plan would pick up the Navy’s pace toward a 355 ship fleet, but it loses sight of the fleet makeup requirements that first established that number. The Navy doesn’t only need a certain number of ships, it needs specific numbers of different vessels to fill specific roles. This plan would get the total number right, but the breakdown of ship types wrong — in particular, the Navy would find itself short a number of attack submarines and amphibious ships the branch has claimed to need.
However, one could attest that the Navy will find themselves short in those categories for years to come in either event, and while a destroyer may not fulfill the same role as an attack submarine — having a vessel is still better than no vessel at all — even if it’s the wrong one. Moore said,
If you want to keep all the classes out to as long as you can keep them – and there’s cost associated with that – we think we can get to 355 now in the early 2030s, 2032 to 2035. That’s a significant improvement, and it’s something that we’re looking at pretty seriously.”
Image courtesy of the Department of Defense