U.S. Military Forces in FY 2021: Navy

Part of U.S. Military Forces in FY 2021. Unlike the other services, the Navy has sought to significantly expand its force structure. However, its previous plan to reach 355 ships collapsed because of high costs and the need to incorporate new technologies such as unmanned systems. A new plan incorporates smaller ships and large numbers of unmanned systems.

Key Takeaways

  • In FY 2021, Navy active-duty personnel would increase by 5,300 to 347,800. Fleet size increases to 306 ships as previously ordered ships arrive, particularly the numerous littoral combat ships (LCS). The Navy continues to plan on significant expansion.

  • The 355-ship goal was deemed infeasible because of its high cost. The structure was also criticized for focusing on large and expensive ships, particularly aircraft carriers, and not incorporating unmanned surface and undersea vessels/vehicles.

  • When the Navy could not come up with a feasible new plan, Secretary of Defense Esper took over.

  • On October 7, Secretary Esper outlined a “500+ ship” future fleet described as “an ever-present, resilient, and dominant fighting force.”

  • Carriers and large surface combatants (LSCs) may be cut to pay for the unmanned vessels, additional submarines and small surface combatants, and a new class of small amphibious ships. However, many details remain unavailable, and to be real, the plan needs to be incorporated into the president’s FY 2022 budget proposal.

  • The Navy and the secretary of defense seem to have different interpretations about the future fleet, as has been the case for many years.

  • Affordability will be a challenge. The new fleet structure costs about the same as the 355-ship fleet. Esper wants the Navy to find the resources internally and may provide some resources from savings across the Department of Defense (DOD).

  • Naval aviation, in contrast to the surface and subsurface fleets, remains focused on manned platforms.

  • Ship numbers matter to the Navy because of the high demands for its forces in day-to-day operations for crisis response, allied and partner engagement, and ongoing regional conflicts.

End Strength in FY 2021

The Navy had a good year for recruiting and retention, so its actual active-duty end strength was higher than what had been authorized. (Congress allows the services some leeway.)

Navy personnel levels have been on a roller coaster, reaching a high of 383,000 in FY 2002 and a low of 318,000 in FY 2012. The number has crept back up, but the Navy is still far below its pre-9/11 size. However, the number of sailors tracks roughly to the number of ships in the fleet (see Chart 2).

The Navy projects that active-duty end strength will continue to grow, reaching 349,100 by FY 2025. However, unlike its projection last year and for several past years, this projection levels off.

This does not look like a personnel plan for 355 ships or 500+ ships. Indeed, just last year, the Navy said it was 6,200 sailors short in the fleet.1 Instead, this projection looks like a placeholder designed to save money until a long-term fleet plan is put in place.

[The Navy’s personnel] this projection looks like a placeholder designed to save money until a long-term fleet plan is put in place.

The Navy reserve has been in a long-term decline, unlike other reserve components. Although its end strength has been roughly stable since 2014, by FY 2025 the Navy Reserve will shrink a bit further to 58,000. This long-term decline results from the retirement of all Navy Reserve ships and many Navy Reserve aircraft, so the remaining forces are mainly logistics, support, and staff augmentation. While these have an important role, that role is much narrower than in the reserve components of other services.

The number of civilians increases by 1,700. The Navy, like DOD in general, emphasizes that most civilians work outside Washington and are a critical element of readiness because of the work they do on facilities and maintenance.

Fleet Size in FY 2021 and Beyond

After years of shrinkage, the fleet is growing as new ships are delivered, particularly the numerous littoral combat ships (LCSs) and DDG-51 destroyers. (Rightly or wrongly, the ship count is often used as a measure of Navy capacity.2) The Navy hit 297 ships by the end of FY 2020 and will reach 306 ships at the end of FY 2021, up from its low point of 271 in 2015.

After years of shrinkage, the fleet is growing as new ships are delivered, particularly the numerous littoral combat ships (LCSs) and DDG-51 destroyers.

In part, the decline in ship numbers resulted from Navy decisions to buy bigger, and more expensive, ships. As the chart on tonnage shows, today’s fleet has 54 percent of the number of ships of 1988 (303 versus 565) but 87 percent of the tonnage. Today’s DDG-51 destroyer (Flight IIA) displaces 9,700 tons, twice the tonnage of a 1980s Charles F. Adams-class destroyer and four times the tonnage of a World War II Fletcher-class destroyer (2,500 tons). Indeed, the DDG-51 has the tonnage of a World War II cruiser. The increased size produces greater capability, but ships can only be in one place at a time.

The Unrelenting Demands of Current Operations

The average number of ships deployed has remained at the current level of about 100 for three decades, even though the number of ships has declined over time. The need to deploy to Europe, a theater largely ignored since the end of the Cold War, adds to demands. The CENTCOM commander still wants carriers and naval presence.3 To better cover the Atlantic, the Navy reactivated the Second Fleet headquarters in Norfolk. 

The Navy reports that it can fulfill only about half of the theater commanders’ requests for Navy ships.4 Because these theater requests are not resource constrained, it is unsurprising that the requests greatly exceed what is available.

This shortfall engenders a concern that the Navy is too small for the tasks that it is being asked to perform, hence the drive to expand.

On the other hand, the National Defense Strategy (NDS) calls for a focus on great power conflict, specifies the need for high-end capabilities, downplays the need for force expansion, and states an intention to reduce day-to-day demands.

The Collapse of the 355-Ship Fleet Goal

After candidate Trump, who had called for a 350-ship Navy, won the 2016 election, the Navy did a quick force structure assessment and came up with a new goal of 355 ships.

Compared with the 2014 goal of 308 ships, the Navy’s 355-ship goal added numbers in several categories but especially submarines (+18) and large surface combatants (LSCs) (+16). It focused on existing and proven ship types and included none of the nontraditional ships contained in many more recent alternative force structure proposals. The intention was to get ships built quickly, without the delay and risk of development programs.

Both the president and Congress endorsed the Navy’s 355-ship goal (“It shall be the policy of the United States to have available, as soon as practicable, not fewer than 355 battle force ships”).5

However, the 355-ship goal collapsed because of strategy and money. The strategic problem was that it did not explicitly include unmanned systems, which were attracting a lot of attention, and by focusing on large and expensive ships, it did not seem consistent with a developing strategy of dispersed operations for combat in the Western Pacific.

The other problem was that the goal was just too expensive. The Navy’s FY 2020 30-year shipbuilding plan calculated spending at $20.3 billion per year through FY 2024 and $26 billion to $28 billion beyond FY 2024, but the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) calculated a cost of $31 billion per year.6 That was “50 percent larger than the Navy’s average funding for shipbuilding over the past five years.”7 The Congressional Research Service came to similar conclusions.8

The Navy considered closing this gap between its fleet goal and its resources by extending the life of existing ships by 5 to 19 years.9 Keeping the hull, mechanical, and engineering systems going this long was possible, given appropriate maintenance. In the past, however, the Navy has retired ships early to free funds for new construction and because of concerns that the combat systems were becoming obsolete. Further, even with service-life extensions, the Navy still needed more money.

Through the fall of 2019 and into the early winter of 2020, the Navy tried but failed to come up with a viable FY 2021 30-year shipbuilding plan. There were too many constraints:10

  • 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, by including in the count unmanned and different kinds of ships, but Congress has always been suspicious, seeing this as a way of cutting the Navy while keeping the appearance of size;

  • 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 the Navy unable to find a feasible solution, Secretary Esper, in a bureaucratic slap at the Navy, took over development of the Navy’s force structure plan.

The Esper Force Structure Assessment

Although DOD had announced its intention to release the plan “in the summer,” DOD repeatedly delayed publication, greatly annoying Congress.11 Finally, on October 7, Secretary Esper presented the outlines of a future fleet. This future fleet, which he called “Battle Force 2045,” described the major elements but lacked detail. There was no written product to back up his oral presentation.12

With the Navy unable to find a feasible solution, Secretary Esper, in a bureaucratic slap at the Navy, took over development of the Navy’s force structure plan.

In developing this future fleet, Esper took inputs from the Navy, the Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation, and a study by the Hudson Institute.13

Esper described this as a 500+ ship fleet, including both manned and unmanned vessels/vehicles.14 He indicated that it would “reach 355 traditional battle force ships prior to 2035.”

Although Esper did not give a cost, he acknowledged the need for additional resources, calling for shipbuilding funds to rise to the level of the Reagan buildup. He stated that these funds would not come from other services but from the Navy internally and savings from DOD overhead.15

CSIS calculated an annual shipbuilding cost of $28.5 billion for this future plan (a total shipbuilding appropriation of about $30.6 billion when other costs, such as small craft and outfitting, are included). Near-term costs would likely be higher to build up to the numbers specified. This was about the level of CBO’s analysis of the 355-ship Navy.16 Savings from procurement of smaller and less expensive ships were offset by larger numbers.

It is important to keep in mind that changes of this magnitude will take decades to implement. The fleet will have mixed ship varieties for many years. Further, this is only a concept. It needs to get into the FY 2022 budget and associated five-year plan with specific numbers for ships and costs. Although the White House is likely to support the plan, that support needs to be manifest in the president’s next budget proposal.

The table below was pieced together from his comments and previous news reports. The following section, “The Fleet in FY 2021 and Beyond,” contains a detailed description of each ship type and what the Esper proposal would do.17

The Fleet in FY 2021 and Beyond

To understand the future fleet, the place to start is the FY 2021 budget proposal. The president’s budget proposed to construct only seven ships in FY 2021: one Columbia-class submarine, one SSN-774 submarine, two DDG-51 destroyers, one FFG(X) frigate, one large amphibious assault ship, and one auxiliary. Congress might add ships in its final bills as it customarily does, another submarine being the most likely addition, but the number of ships funded in FY 2021 will be unusually low compared with recent shipbuilding budgets.

The reason for the low number is that the Navy shipbuilding account declines from $24 billion in FY 2020 to $19.9 billion in FY 2021. One reason for this decline is that the Navy lost money at the last minute of budget preparation as resources shifted from DOD to the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration for nuclear weapons infrastructure.

The number of ships funded in FY 2021 will be unusually low compared with recent shipbuilding budgets.

Shipbuilding projections in the five-year plan, the Future Year Defense Program (FYDP), average 8.4 new ships per year, down from 11 per year in the FY 2020 projection.

Table 3 calculates fleet size with different assumptions about building rate and service life. Although building rates will change over the course of decades, the calculation gives insight into the achievability of the goal.

The calculation shows that the fleet never reaches 355 ships. Under most assumptions, the fleet does not even get to 300 ships. Fleet size does reach 336 ships with heroic assumptions about service life. However, the Navy tends to retire ships at 30 or 35 years, as combat systems become obsolete, and service-life extensions do not produce enough additional useful life to make them worthwhile. Assuming a 35-year service life, the Navy would need to build 10.1 ships per year to eventually reach 355 ships.

The good news in the shipbuilding budget is that with the exception of the Columbia-class SSBN and the new FFG(X), Navy shipbuilding programs are in serial production and moving ahead without major issues (assuming the Ford-class carrier can get its ammunition elevators to work). Thus, the Navy avoids the controversies that plagued it in the 2000s when severe problems with the Ford-class carriers, LCSs, and the DDG-1000s brought into question the Navy’s ability to effectively manage shipbuilding programs.

This stability will shortly be upset when the new ship types specified by the future force structure begin the acquisition process.

A near-term risk is that the Navy will retire large numbers of ships early to save money to buy a small number of additional new ships. In that case, it will have the worst of both worlds: high costs and smaller numbers.

Unmanned Ships

Discussion begins with unmanned ships, not because they are important in the fleet―none have yet gone beyond the experimental stage―but because they figure so prominently in the new force structure and because so much of the discussion regarding the future fleet centers on this new technology.

Unmanned systems, both surface and undersea, currently exist in various forms from essentially conceptual to working prototypes. None yet constitute a program of record whereby the Navy commits to a certain number and builds all the needed support and infrastructure capabilities. How unmanned systems will operate in the fleet, whether the network can handle the bandwidth, and where unmanned surface vessel (USVs) will be based are all unanswered questions.

The Navy is beginning to incorporate unmanned vessels/vehicles into the fleet to distribute capabilities over more platforms and thereby reduce vulnerability in a great power conflict. Unmanned vessels/vehicles can do work that is too dull and dangerous for manned systems. Unmanned systems may also reduce the number of personnel required or at least move personnel to less vulnerable and less stressful locations.

The Navy is beginning to incorporate unmanned vessels/vehicles into the fleet to distribute capabilities over more platforms and thereby reduce vulnerability in a great power conflict.

The Navy has three programs for seagoing unmanned vessels/vehicles: a large USV, a medium USV, and an extra-large undersea vehicle. Table 4 shows acquisition plans. Funding is nonstandard since these are rapid acquisitions. None are currently funded through the regular shipbuilding account. Funding through the RDT&E appropriation implies that the system is experimental; funding through the Other Procurement account implies that it is a sensor, not a weapon.

The lack of an official program of record for unmanned systems and the nonstandard funding is inconsistent with Esper’s plan for major investments. Navy officials have said that concrete plans will be in the FY 2022 budget.18

The Navy has used Chart 8 to explain its plan for surface ships. Large ships (1,000–2,000 tons, the size of a corvette) will be shooters as well as sensors. A medium-sized unmanned vessel (500 tons, about the size of a current patrol craft) is still in the prototype phase (one was procured in FY 2019 for experimental purposes) and would only carry sensors, in effect being a disposable scout for the shooters. Note that the fielding of unmanned vessels will reduce the need for LSCs.19

Congress has supported the concept of unmanned systems but has been skeptical about the Navy’s desire to move quickly before key technologies are proven.

Size is a limitation on USVs. As vessels become larger, they run the risk of becoming too complex for remote operation; small vessels would be appropriate for coastal or harbor operations but become inadequate for ocean seakeeping.

A major limitation of unmanned ships is that they cannot perform many noncombat roles, such as engagement with partners and allies, humanitarian assistance, and gray zone competition.

Chart 9 shows Navy plans for undersea unmanned vehicles (UUVs). The chart is too busy for detailed discussion. The key point is that, unlike surface and air units, subsurface units are seen as complements to manned submarines, not as replacements. For that reason, they are more easily accepted. Many of the systems are small, torpedo-like systems for scouting.

The major undersea system is the Extra Large Unmanned Undersea Vehicle (XLUUV), a 50-ton minisub with a modular payload bay so it can execute a variety of missions. Five are under construction as experimental systems. Additional procurements begin in FY 2023, but in the Other Procurement Navy account, not the shipbuilding account.


The size of the carrier force drives Navy force structure and budgets for two reasons: carriers and their escorts take up most of the shipbuilding budget, and providing aircraft for the carriers takes most of the aviation budget.

Congress established a requirement for a minimum operational carrier force of 11. The Navy’s 2016 Force Structure Assessment established a goal of 12, but this is nearly impossible to achieve because of the long lead time needed to build carriers.21

The size of the carrier force drives Navy force structure and budgets . . .

Although Secretary Esper gave a range of 8 to 11, he implied that the number would go down. Press reports indicated that the secretary’s staff had recommended 9 carriers.22 However, Admiral Gilday later stated, “[w]hen the report comes out, you’ll see the same numbers for the supercarrier force.”23 The Navy and the Office of the Secretary of Defense seem to be in different places here.

Aircraft carriers have long been criticized by strategists because of their high cost and perceived vulnerability. Many strategists see large aircraft carriers as “legacy” systems. A recent House Armed Services Committee study tentatively suggested to “shift funding from a single aircraft carrier and instead use multiple unmanned aerial vehicles.”24

However, the highly visible usefulness of aircraft carriers for day-to-day crisis response and regional conflicts gives them a lot of support.25 Pushed by Congress and a highly attractive offer from Huntington Ingals Industries, the carrier builder, the Navy executed a two-carrier procurement in January 2019.26 This double procurement had the effect of locking in carrier construction for a decade.

Faced with an institutional, political, and industrial need to continue building large nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, the Navy has periodically proposed retiring old carriers early, instead of doing a midlife extension, and will likely propose the same in the future. However, Congress rejected both previous proposals to do this, for the USS George Washington (CVN-74) and USS HarryTruman (CVN-75), and the Navy quickly backed down. The incongruity of buying new carriers while retiring old ones early was hard to justify. Further, such an approach constituted the highest-cost strategy for carrier procurement, since a year of operational life gained from a midlife extension is much less costly than a year gained from new construction.27

Chart 10 assumes that the Navy continues to build nuclear aircraft carriers every five years (five-year “centers,” to use the Navy term, because funding is spread over eight years) but retires the next three Nimitz-class carriers early, consistent with what it has tried to do recently. If Congress refuses to go along, then the carrier levels will stay at the level of the FY 2020 plan. The Navy could propose building carriers on a slower timeline, for example, on eight year “centers,” but carrier advocates have prevailed against such a slowdown in the past.

“Light” carriers: The idea of a “light” carrier―something smaller than the large CVN―has been around for decades. Recently, a RAND study indicated that such carrier options might be attractive.28 Several commentators, such as Senator John McCain in 2017, proposed building smaller carriers on the America-class landing helicopter assault (LHA) design. In 2019, then-Undersecretary Thomas Modly stated that the $13 billion cost of a Ford-class carrier was “unsustainable,” thus reinforcing the case for a lighter alternative.29

Esper’s future Navy has “up to six” light carriers to supplement the CVN “supercarriers,” as he called them. He raised the possibility of using the USS America “as a model.” The assumption in this CSIS analysis is that these light carriers are repurposed helicopter carriers, not new builds. 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-35 (B model) can fly. Strategists have long proposed using these ships as aircraft carriers for non-amphibious missions such as power projection and sea control.

Admiral Gilday muddied the waters by talking about the light carrier as the “aviation combatant of the future,” noting that the time horizon was 2045. This implies a specifically designed ship far in the future, a concept that seems entirely different from the near-term capability that Esper implied.30

Large Surface Combatants

Large surface combatants (LSCs) are destroyers and cruisers. Historically, these constituted the backbone of the service fleet. However, as indicated in Chart 8, the fielding of unmanned vessels may reduce the number of LSCs even as they increase the number of small-scale combatants. Indeed, the Navy’s director of surface warfare said, “the future force mix is one that favors a ratio of small surface ships and unmanned surface vessels.”31 Although Esper did not discuss large combatants, other sources put the number for the future fleet at 80 to 90.32 This is substantially below the goal in the 355-ship fleet (104 LSCs) but about where the fleet is today (92).

DDG-51 Destroyers: The program is on track, with 85 currently funded or delivered. Ships built since 2010 incorporate a ballistic missile defense capability. The most current version is the Flight III configuration with a more powerful radar, called the AN/SPY-6 Air and Missile Defense Radar.

In April 2018, the Navy announced that it wanted to extend the service lives of all DDG-51s to 45 years—an increase of 5 or 10 years over previous plans―in order to reach the numbers required for the 355-ship goal. However, the Navy recently announced plans to retire the first four DDG-51s rather than upgrade them, thus putting in question its extended life plan.33

The FY 2020 plan showed the Navy procuring 13 DDG-51s from FY 2021 to FY 2025, a level sufficient to maintain a fleet of 85. The FY 2021 plan shows procurement of only 9 over the same period. The Navy’s plan may be to reduce production of these ships until the inventory gets down to the target levels.

DDG-1000 Zumwalt Destroyers: These three stealthy, high-technology destroyers (at 14,500 tons, larger than Ticonderoga-class cruisers and, indeed, the size of pre-World War I battleships) are still having problems. The total buy was cut in the 2000s from 32 to 3, with 47 percent cost growth. The lead ship was commissioned in 2016, but delivery was delayed to late 2020 because of a series of serious engineering casualties. The other two ships have now been delivered, but neither has made a deployment. Further, the ships’ 155mm guns, originally a primary justification for the ship, have become ineffective with cancellation of the long-range munition that they were to fire.34

CG-47 Cruiser Modernization: The Navy proposes to modernize only 7 of the 11 newest cruisers, not all 11 as had been the plan last year. Concerned about a shrinking ship inventory, Congress has repeatedly balked at retiring these chips in the past. Esper’s plan likely assumes retirement of these cruisers since there is no need to expand the LSC force.

Next generation LSC: Shipbuilding plans continue to show some version of a next-generation LSC (“DDG Next”) but in the future beyond the FYDP-period, indicating that such plans are in flux.

The projection assumes that the CG-47 class retires without modernization and that the service lives of the DDG-51s are not extended. The projection stays above the Esper target because so many previously ordered ships deliver but falls into the target zone as decommissionings increase.35

Small Surface Combatants

Small surface combatants (SSCs) are frigates, LCSs, and mine countermeasures ships.36

Although smaller and less capable than cruisers and destroyers, they cost half as much.

During the Cold War, SSCs had a wartime mission of escorting convoys. This mission disappeared after the Cold War, and SSCs went out of favor. However, interest has renewed in an environment of a great power competition where adversaries can reach out extended distances and threaten U.S. sea lines of communication. SSCs are also useful for providing a more distributed naval force structure to operate within an adversary’s defensive zone. They can operate in shallower waters such as the South China Sea and provide a secondary benefit of increasing total fleet numbers, therefore allowing the Navy to be present in more places globally.

In Secretary Esper’s future force, the goal for SSCs increases from 52 to between 60 and 70. This force will consist of LCSs and the follow-on frigates.

Because LCSs with mine countermeasure modules are now entering the fleet, the Navy proposes to phase out the mine countermeasures ships (MCM-1 Avenger-class), retiring all by 2024, a one-year delay from last year’s plan. This class of ship disappears from the fleet, replaced by sensors on other ships such as LCSs.

The LCS classes are now entering the fleet in large numbers, typically two to three per year. However, performance of the LCS classes is widely regarded as disappointing, and production has now ended. The Navy proposes retiring the first four ships instead of upgrading them.

Replacing the LCS program is a follow-on frigate program, FFG(X), that will be multi-mission, like the earlier FFG-7 class, and not single-mission like the LCSs. The first ship was authorized in FY 2020 and another ship is proposed for FY 2021. To speed introduction of the class and to reduce risk, both driven by the experience of the LCS program, bidders were required to use an existing design. A team led by Fincantieri/Marinette Marine won the competition with a European design. Using a foreign design is highly unusual and reflects the Navy’s desire for speed and risk reduction.

The Navy’s FY 2020 shipbuilding plan showed procurement of two FFG(X)s every year from FY 2021 to FY 2029. However, the FY 2021 five-year plan shows one in FY 2021 and FY 2022 and two per year after that. This phasing will delay entry of larger numbers into the fleet but is prudent given the difficulties typically encountered with new ship classes.37 Eventually, however, production will need to increase if the fleet is to reach the goals set out by Esper. The projection assumes a “2-3-2-3” profile beginning FY 2024.

The phasing may mitigate technical risk, but there is also risk of cost growth. The CBO places the cost per ship at potentially 40 percent higher than the Navy is currently estimating. That would be a major challenge for the program.38

Amphibious Ships

Plans for the amphibious fleet have been thoroughly disrupted in the last year. For many years, the Navy and Marine Corps goal was 38 large ships—landing helicopter assault/decks (LHAs/LHDs), dock landing platforms (LPDs), dock landing ships (LSDs). This goal was calculated by the need to launch an amphibious operation of two Marine expeditionary brigades (17 ships each) plus a 10 percent margin for maintenance.

General Berger, in his commandant’s guidance (described in detail in the Marine Corps chapter) rejected this methodology. He argued that large amphibious ships appear vulnerable in a great power conflict, and the ability of the Navy and Marine Corps to execute a classic landing in the high-threat environment foreseen by the NDS seemed doubtful: “Visions of a massed naval armada nine nautical miles off-shore in the South China Sea preparing to launch the landing force in swarms of ACVs, LCUs, and LCACs are impractical and unreasonable.”39

Instead, he proposed smaller amphibious ships that would be more distributed, with the loss of any individual ship less catastrophic. This would reverse a long-standing trend toward larger and more capable ships, which are more efficient for moving Marine forces and for peacetime presence but expensive and limited in number.

Navy and Marine Corps officials have floated 28 to 30 as a possible fleet size for these small amphibious ships, tentatively called a “light amphibious warship,” with first funding in FY 2023. These would indeed be small, carrying 30 to 40 crew and 70 Marines. This would make them about the size of a World War II landing craft infantry (LCI), much smaller than the De Soto County-class tank landing ship (LSTs) of the 1960s to 1990s and even smaller than World War II LSTs.40

The future amphibious fleet projection in Chart 13 shows the implication of the Navy’s tentative construction program: 3 in FY 2023, 6 in FY 2024, 10 in FY 2025, and 9 in FY 2026 (commissioning assumed to be two years after funding). The projection assumes that 6 of the LHAs/LHDs are subtracted from the amphibious fleet and attributed to the carrier fleet. That brings the total down into the target range.

The FY 2021 budget continues buying large amphibious ships. It proposes buying one LPD flight II (the second in the class) and buying one every two years in the longer term.

The large deck helicopter carriers, LHA-6-class, are still in the five-year program, with the next one planned for FY 2023. Congress added advance procurement funds for a ship in FY 2020, but these funds were diverted to construction of the border wall. The implication of Esper’s comments is that these would be America-class ships, optimized for aviation.41

If up to six LHAs/LHAs are diverted to operations as light carriers, the amphibious force will look very different in the future.

Attack Submarines

Attack submarines (SSNs) receive strong support from strategists because their firepower and covertness are useful in great power conflicts. Thus, they are likely to receive strong support in the next administration, whether that is a Trump or Biden administration. However, submarines are expensive (about $3.3 billion each in the current version), so increasing production is difficult.

Secretary Esper’s goal is 70 to 80, higher than the old goal of 66. He implies that this is the highest shipbuilding priority.

In the near term, the attack submarine fleet is stable. Numbers stay in the fifties, and the Navy planned to build new boats at the rate of two per year. That plan was disrupted in the FY 2021 budget proposal, where the number of new attack submarines dropped to one. That occurred because of a last-minute shift of $2 billion from DOD to the National Nuclear Security Administration to pay for upgrades in the nuclear weapons infrastructure. However, Congress seems disinclined to go along, with the House version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) putting a second submarine back in and the Senate version providing supportive sentiments and some money.

The greater problem is long term. Numbers dip in the late-2020s and early-2030s, bottoming at 42 boats as Los Angeles-class boats built during the 1980s retire.42 Secretary Esper said that the new plan intends to extend the service life of additional older submarines, but the Navy tends to retire old ships early in order to buy new ships.

This prospective submarine shortfall will happen at a time when Russian and Chinese submarines are becoming more capable and active.43 Retirement of the Ohio-class SSGNs in the late-2020s, which greatly reduces the undersea strike capability, exacerbates the numbers shortfall, although the missile compartments of the newest Virginia-class submarines, with the Virginia Payload Module, will mitigate the capability shortfall. 

The obvious solution is to build more submarines, but having two submarine construction programs operating simultaneously puts pressure on both the shipbuilding account and the submarine industrial base.44 The FY 2020 Navy 30-year shipbuilding plan showed a capacity for three total submarines per year, attack (SSN) or ballistic missile (SSBN) submarines, although the Navy did not always fund to the total capacity. Esper called for building three Virginia-class submarines per year in addition to SSBNs as soon as possible, but the industrial base will need a lot of funding and lead time to get to that level of production.

The Esper projection in Chart 14 assumes additional submarines in FY 2022 and FY 2023, with a level of three SSNs per year achieved in FY 2026, just outside the five-year period. Delivery is six years from funding. Production returns to two submarines per year in FY 2038 so the inventory does not overshoot. It also assumes that additional older submarines will be extended for an additional 10 years.

The dotted line on the chart shows the problem. The Navy cannot build enough new submarines quickly enough to significantly mitigate the trough. What it can do is accelerate the rate at which it gets to its target level.

Ballistic Missile Submarines

The Columbia-class SSBN program—which will replace the existing Ohio-class submarines—continues as planned. The FY 2021 budget proposes authorization for the first ship. Because the program is high priority, enjoys strong bipartisan support, and has no schedule slack, it will likely be unaffected by any changes in future shipbuilding plans. The Esper plan, for example, maintains the same goal of 12.

The budget cost is substantial—$4.4 billion in FY 2021 ($4 billion procurement plus $400 million RDT&E)—and has nearly doubled from FY 2020.45 Affordability of the $100 billion program, long identified as a challenge for Navy shipbuilding, has become a near-term, rather than long-term, issue.

There have been proposals to find other funding mechanisms for the Columbia-class, for example, through a National Sea-based Deterrence Fund. However, none have resulted in substantially increasing funds for Navy shipbuilding.46

CBO has questioned the cost estimates, noting that cost per ton for submarines has been higher than what the Navy is planning. CBO’s cost estimate is 10 percent, or $700 million, higher per Columbia-class submarine than the Navy’s estimate. The Government Accountability Office has similarly questioned DOD’s cost estimate.47 So far, the Navy has not changed any cost estimates.

Any substantial cost growth here will severely disrupt other elements of the shipbuilding plan and hence the future fleet.

Naval Aviation Modernization: The Future Air Wing

It has been said that the U.S. Navy comprises a complete military itself: a navy (with its ships), an army (with the Marine Corps), and an air force (with its air wing). Because naval aircraft provide the striking power of the aircraft carrier, the central weapon system in the U.S. Navy, aviation plays a larger role in the U.S. Navy than it does in other navies.

In FY 2021, naval aviation (Navy and Marine Corps) proposes to procure 121 aircraft of all kinds, down from 163 in FY 2020. Naval aviation is in generally good shape. Inventories have been stable, the average age for most elements is good, and the Navy has been buying enough aircraft to maintain its inventory. That is the good news.

The bad news is that the Navy needs to increase aircraft procurement in the future to maintain current inventories, faces ever higher costs to maintain its aircraft inventory, and has been slow to field unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

Inventories have been stable, the average age for most elements is good, and the Navy has been buying enough aircraft to maintain its inventory. That is the good news.

FY 2021 Procurement

For many years, naval aviation has been procuring mature systems with predictable costs and schedules (with the significant exception of the F-35). As Table 5 shows, that stability is coming to an end. Long-established production lines have recently finished or soon will (gray highlighted); new systems will replace them.

Particularly striking is the plan to end F-18 production after nearly 40 years. This is a change from last year’s plan, which continued to buy F-18s at least through FY 2024. F-35 production does not increase to make up for the lost F-18 production. The planned end to F-18 procurement may reflect an expectation of having to fill fewer carrier decks. Although there is a next-generation fighter in development (“Next Generation Air Dominance”), procurement is not expected until the 2030s. (See Air Force chapter for further discussion.)

The other challenge is that the total number of aircraft procured goes down. In the FY 2020 budget, the average number of aircraft procured per year in the five-year plan was 130. In the FY 2021 plan, it is 107.

The bottom line is that if the Navy does not start buying more aircraft, either the fleet gets smaller or the fleet gets older.

The High Cost of Stable Inventories

Threatening the long-term health of Navy aviation (and Marine Corps and Air Force aviation, as described later) is the high cost of sustaining fleet numbers. As the chart above shows, funding for procurement of naval aviation has increased by about 50 percent since the early-2000s to maintain a smaller inventory. 

The reason is that each generation of aircraft costs more than the generation before it. For example, the E-2C costs $116 million per aircraft (in FY 2021 dollars) when last procured in the early-2000s. Its replacement, the E-2D, has more powerful radar and enhanced command linkages but costs $227 million (FY 2021 dollars).48

The (Slow) Fielding of UAVs: Triton and MQ-25

The Navy’s FY 2021 procurement of large UAVs (0) is the same as the Air Force’s (0)―a problem for both services―but the Navy’s UAV inventory (58, MQ-8 and MQ-4) is far behind the Air Force’s (340, MQ-9 and RQ-4). This reflects the Navy’s relative emphasis on manned systems and, to some, a lack of interest in unmanned systems. The Navy’s tepid action with unmanned aviation systems stands in contrast to its bold action with unmanned surface and subsurface systems.

In his shipbuilding speech, Secretary Esper made an interesting side point about naval aviation. He said that the plan for the future fleet included unmanned ship-based aircraft for “all types, fighters, refuelers, early warning, and electronic attack aircraft.” This is a significant development because the Navy’s near-term plans are for UAVs to have only support rules, not to be shooters.

The Navy’s tepid action with unmanned aviation systems stands in contrast to its bold action with unmanned surface and subsurface systems.

Despite Secretary Esper’s endorsement, the future for Navy unmanned aircraft does not look much better. The MQ-8C Fire Scout, though a significant improvement over the “B” model, continues to have performance problems, having been declared “not operationally effective” by testers.49

The MQ-4C Triton long-range surveillance UAV (a relative of the Air Force’s RQ-4 Global Hawk), which began production in FY 2020, pauses production until FY 2023. This is a change from the Navy’s previous plan to procure two per year. The system received some notoriety when the Iranians shot down one of the prototypes in June 2019.

The MQ-25 is the Navy’s first carrier-capable unmanned aircraft, growing out of a series of experimental programs such as the Unmanned Carrier Launched Aerial Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) program. In 2017, the Navy announced its plan to develop the aircraft as a tanker with some intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance (ISR) capabilities, rather than as a strike platform. The program remains stable, with first procurement planned for FY 2023. Nevertheless, controversy lingers about the program because many observers see it as having been sidelined to a support mission when it should constitute a frontline attack capability. Secretary Esper’s comments will add to that controversy.50

Munitions as an Element of Strategy: Range and Precision

The Navy’s warfighting problem is that it built platforms designed for regional conflicts and for operating close to the adversary. Its ships are highly capable but large and few. Its tactical aircraft are very short ranged. So, the Navy’s challenge—and that of the other services, to a lesser degree—is how to use these existing systems against an adversary that can build a formidable defensive zone (often called an anti-access/area denial, or A2/AD, zone). 

One Navy solution is to put long-range precision munitions on existing weapons systems, both ships and aircraft. That allows assets to stay out of the most dangerous area but still participate in the fight. Thus, the Navy has developed an “offensive missile strategy.” Although the details are classified, the strategy purports to sustain current inventories, increase the capabilities of existing weapons, and develop new weapons.

One Navy solution [to the problem of operating close to the adversary] is to put long-range precision munitions on existing weapon systems, both ships and aircraft.

The president’s FY 2021 budget maintains a high level of munitions procurement, comparable to the purchasing rate last year even though Navy procurement resources decreased. Key munitions actions include:

  • For ships, buying the latest version of tactical Tomahawk (Block IV) and an over-the-horizon missile for LCSs;

  • For aircraft, buying the Long Range Anti-Ship Missiles (LRASM), essentially an adaptation of the Air Force’s JASSM, and the Joint Standoff Weapon – Extended Range (JSOW-ER);

  • For longer-term capability, $1 billion to develop the Conventional Prompt Strike (CPS), a hypervelocity missile, as well as continuing development of the Offensive Anti-Surface Warfare (OASuW) Increment 2 missile and a Next-Generation Land Attack Weapon;51 and

  • The budget does cut procurement of Small Diameter Bomb II, an airdropped land-attack munition, likely reduced because of the less intense bombing campaigns in the Middle East. The budget also cuts procurement of the LCS surface-to-surface missile module, likely because of a reduced LCS buy and a changing missile mix.

Mark Cancian (Colonel, USMCR, ret.) is a senior adviser with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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