Secretary Esper Previews the Future Navy

On October 6, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper previewed elements of a long-awaited plan about the future Navy fleet, which he called “Battle Force 2045.” The Navy has been long overdue to present a new force structure, and Esper’s remarks provided an outline of what the future fleet will look like. However, as he was presenting an outline and major force elements, many details remain uncertain. This analysis examines Esper’s proposed changes to Navy force structure, its likely costs, broader context, and potential opposition.

Q1: What major changes did Secretary Esper propose?

A1: Esper outlined a plan for a 500-ship Navy, which includes both manned and unmanned vessels. The table below lays out Esper’s proposed plan, as pieced together from his comments and previous news reports, and compares it to the 355-ship goal in the 2016 Navy Force Structure Assessment and the current fleet. Our analysis of the major changes is further outlined below.

Source: For the size of the current fleet, see Highlights of the Department of the Navy FY 2021 Budget (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, February 10, 2020) Figure 3.2; for the 355 ship goal, see, EXECUTIVE SUMMARY 2016 Navy Force Structure Assessment (FSA) (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, December 14, 2016).


Attack submarines would be significantly increased, according to Esper’s outline. They are useful in great power conflicts because of their firepower and covertness but are expensive (about $4 billion each in the current flight III version). Although Esper called for building three Virginia-class submarines per year as soon as possible, the industrial base will not support that level of production without a lot of funding and lead time.

Cruise missile submarines disappear. This has long been planned when these submarines reach the end of their service lives. The latest version of the Virginia-class submarines (flight III) includes a missile compartment to replace this capability.

Ballistic missile submarines are unchanged because their level is set by arms control agreements and national nuclear policy, not by Navy force structure analyses. The goal of 12 Columbia-class submarines replacing the existing fleet of 14 Ohio-class submarines has been long established with bipartisan support. The number goes down because each Columbia-class submarine can spend more time at sea than the Ohio class.

Aircraft Carriers

Aircraft carriers have long been criticized by strategists because of their high cost and perceived vulnerability. Although Esper gave a range, the implication is that the number of them would go down. The Navy has twice proposed retiring carriers early instead of doing a midlife extension, and this plan likely includes such action in the future. It is not clear that Congress will go along, because it denied the Navy request both times. The incongruity of buying new carriers while retiring old ones early was hard to justify. Further, such an approach constitutes the highest-cost strategy for carrier procurement since one year of operational life gained from a midlife extension is much less costly than one year gained from new construction.

Amphibious Assault Ships

“Light” carriers are new, but our assumption is that they are repurposed helicopter carriers, not new builds. Esper indicated that there would be up to six such ships, based on the America-class big deck amphibious assault ship, to supplement the CVN “supercarriers,” as he called them. Currently, there are 11 helicopter carriers intended for amphibious missions and classed as amphibious ships (an “L” designator). However, they have large flight decks from which the short takeoff and landing version of the F-35B model can fly. Strategists have long proposed using the ships as aircraft carriers for non-amphibious missions like power projection and sea control.

The overall number of amphibious assault ships would increase to between 50-60, up from the 33 ships in the current fleet and the projected 38 in the previous 355-ship plan. There were no concrete details on the high-low mix of amphibious assault ships, but other sources indicate Navy plans to build 28-30 small amphibious ships.

Unmanned Surface and Subsurface Vessels

The new force structure proposes large numbers of unmanned surface and subsurface vessels. Currently, the Navy has three programs for seagoing unmanned vessels: a large unmanned surface vessel (1,000-2,000 tons, the size of a corvette warship), a medium unmanned surface vessel (500 tons, about the size of the current patrol craft), and an extra-large subsurface vessel (about 50 tons, the size of the minisub).

Unmanned systems―surface and subsurface―become an important part of the fleet in this outline because of their ability to do dull and dangerous work within an adversary’s defensive bubble. Unmanned systems may also reduce the number of personnel required, or at least move personnel to less vulnerable and stressful locations. But unmanned systems do have limitations. They cannot perform some missions, such as engagement with allies and partners, humanitarian assistance, and certain kinds of crisis response. As unmanned vessels get larger, they may also lose their advantage over manned systems because of the complexity of operations.

The major challenge, however, is that the Navy only has a single experimental unmanned surface vessel operating today. How unmanned systems will operate in the fleet, whether the network can handle the bandwidth, and where unmanned surface vessels will be based are all unanswered questions.

These unmanned surface and subsurface vessels may not count as “ships.” The Navy has official ship-counting rules, set by an agreement between the Navy and the Office of the Secretary of Defense back in the 1980s with occasional updates, most recently in 2016. Some unmanned vessels might not be counted under these rules because of their small size. In the past, Congress has been reluctant to change the counting rules, seeing this as a way of cutting the Navy while keeping the appearance of size.

Large/Small Surface Combatants

Under this plan, the number of small combatants (currently littoral combat ships but in the future frigates) increase because of their lower cost and ability to provide distributed capabilities. They provide a secondary benefit of increasing total fleet numbers, therefore allowing the Navy to be present in more places globally. Large combatants (cruisers and destroyers) were not discussed, but other sources put the number at 80-90.

Combat Logistics Ships

The fleet will include more logistics ships, between 70 and 90, to deal with an environment in which they are threatened by adversaries for the first time in 70 years. Other sources indicate that the Navy will procure smaller logistics ships because they are harder to locate, and a single loss is less catastrophic.


Aircraft were not the focus of the presentation, but Esper did make an interesting side point, saying that the plan included unmanned ship-based aircraft of all types, fighters, refuelers, early warning, and electronic attack aircraft. This development is significant because the Navy’s near-term plans are for unmanned aerial vehicles to have only support roles, not to be shooters. Esper also criticized the short range of carrier aviation. Both comments could be seen as criticisms of the F-35.

Q2: How long will it take to implement these changes?

A2: This is a fleet goal for the year 2045, six presidential administrations in the future. The Navy has been doing force structure assessments at regular intervals―2008, 2016, and now 2020―so this plan will be revised many times over that period.

Some changes will appear within the Defense Department’s five-year planning window. For example, the Navy is already building new small combatants, called FFG (X). It is also building unmanned surface and subsurface vessels, though as experimental systems. The Navy has solicited proposals for a small amphibious ship and designs for a small logistics ship. Although those are not in the current five-year plan, they will almost certainly appear in the FY 2022 five-year plan.

On the other hand, the carrier fleet will not change soon. Last year, the Navy signed a contract for two new carriers, so carrier construction is locked in for a decade.

Q3:Why did Esper propose this new plan?

A3: The Navy has been long overdue for a new force structure plan to meet the demands of great power competition. In his opening remarks, Esper reiterated the need to prepare for this new environment. He cited the need for distributed lethality, survivability in high-intensity conflict, adaptability, power projection and sea control, and long-range precision strike capability.

This plan builds on the concept of distributed maritime operations and its implications for force structure—more numerous, smaller, risk-acceptant platforms. However, it breaks with the Navy’s previous operational concept that concentrated capabilities in a small number of extremely capable but extremely expensive carrier battle groups. After the Cold War, when there was no naval force that could challenge the U.S. Navy at sea, the Navy focused on using the sea to project power ashore―power projection. Now the Russians and especially the Chinese can challenge the Navy at sea. Thus, the Navy recognizes that a new force structure assessment needs to focus on building a fleet that can fight at sea in the face of adversaries with long-range weapons and full-spectrum capabilities.

Q4:Why did Esper make this proposal instead of the Navy?

A4: Last fall, the Navy tried but failed to come up with a new force structure assessment, called the Integrated Force Structure Assessment (INFSA), and an associated 30-year shipbuilding plan. There were too many constraints:

  • The Navy suggested getting more money, but the other services pushed back immediately;
  • The Navy raised the possibility of changing the way ships are counted, including unmanned and different kinds of ships in the count, but Congress pushed back;
  • The Navy proposed changing the 355-ship goal, but that was inflexible having been endorsed by the president and fixed in statute; and
  • The Navy proposed finding savings elsewhere in its budget and then shifting these funds to shipbuilding but found this difficult.

With no feasible solution, Esper, in a bureaucratic slap at the Navy, took over development of the Navy’s 30-year shipbuilding plan. The plan he announced on October 6 came from analysis conducted by the Navy, the secretary’s own staff (the Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation), and the Hudson Institute.

Q5:How much will this plan cost?

A5: Although Esper did not specify an annual cost, the plan will be expensive. We plugged the numbers into a spreadsheet using costs of existing or projected ships, the standard service life of all ships, and best guesses about numbers (10 carriers and otherwise in the middle of a range). The result was an annual shipbuilding cost of $28.5 billion (a total shipbuilding appropriation of about $30.6 billion when other costs, like small craft and outfitting, are included). Near-term costs would likely be higher to build up to the numbers specified.

By comparison, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), in its analysis of Navy shipbuilding, priced the Navy’s 355-ship goal at $28.8 billion per year ($31 billion for the total shipbuilding account). This was substantially higher than the Navy’s estimate because of differences in pricing future ship classes. Operating costs would rise as the size of the fleet increased. Thus, the new plan is about the same cost as the old plan, with savings from procurement of smaller and less expensive ships being offset by larger numbers.

Affordability will be an issue. CBO noted that a shipbuilding budget of $31 billion per year is double the average level of shipbuilding funding over the last 30 years, although not far off from Cold War shipbuilding funding levels. In FY 2020, the shipbuilding account reached $24 billion, but the FY 2021 president’s budget proposed only $19.9 billion. Thus, the cost of Esper’s plan is far above recent shipbuilding budgets.

Q6: Where is the money going to come from?

A6: Esper said that the plan was “resource informed.” The additional funding would not come from the other services but from the “fourth estate” (defense agencies and department-wide activities) and combatant command reviews. He has an ongoing process to identify such savings. Previously, he had implied the Navy itself needed to find funds internally, which is likely also part of his plan. His goal is to increase the shipbuilding account to 13 percent of the Navy’s topline, a level that matches the average for shipbuilding during the Reagan buildup in the 1980s.

The administration has long stated its intention to pay for new initiatives through cuts in overhead and infrastructure. The National Defense Strategy, for example, has management reform as one of its three major elements. However, while it is easy to criticize excess overhead, the specifics get messy and hard to implement. For example, the administration has been unable, and recently unwilling, to push for base closures, which is the most well-documented and widely supported mechanism for achieving overhead savings. The FY 2021 budget does identify $5.7 billion in savings, which is commendable, but Congress has rejected major elements, such as health care reforms. The much-anticipated audit identified no savings because that is not its function.

Thirteen percent of the Navy’s topline may not be enough. In FY 2021 that would yield $22.4 billion, far below the level needed.

Q7: Will there be opposition to this plan?

A7: Strategists have long discussed the kinds of changes proposed in this plan, so it will have broad support in the national security community. That means that major elements would probably continue into a Biden administration, if there is one.

The new kinds of ships proposed, manned and unmanned, are relatively small and inexpensive, so they will not engender the opposition that larger ships might. Congress has been wary about proceeding too quickly with new designs because of shipbuilding cost overruns and schedule delays in the 2000s, but this is a disagreement about schedule, not structure.

More controversial will be any Navy attempts to retire ships early to make way for this new fleet. Congress has pushed back on that in the past, arguing that Navy needs ship numbers to meet all its global commitments. Further, retiring large numbers of ships early to save money to buy a small number of additional new ships runs the risk of having the worst of both worlds: high costs and smaller numbers.

The carrier force is fixed by law at 11, so making cuts would require Congress to agree explicitly. This constitutes an additional hurdle to implementing the plan, but Congress has changed statutory carrier levels in the past. With the possible exception of carriers, the plan does not appear to cut any ongoing production lines. However, if such terminations are in the details, they would also be controversial.

The large number of small vessels being procured may disrupt the naval shipbuilding industry, which has focused on building large ships by a small number of specialized yards. More shipbuilders may be able to participate in the future.

Q8: Why do you call this an “outline”?

A8: By his own admission, Secretary Esper’s statement is missing a lot of details. First, many of the numbers are ranges. Further, there’s no 30-year plan, so it is not clear how long it will take to get to these force structure levels. Last, details about some of the ship types are unclear. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michael Gilday may offer more details next week in a conversation with Defense One.

Mark Cancian (colonel, USMCR, ret.) is a senior adviser with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Adam Saxton is a research associate with the CSIS International Security Program.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Adam Saxton