U.S. Military Forces in FY 2022: Navy

This paper is part of U.S. Military Forces in FY 2022. There is bipartisan support to expand the Navy, but limited budgets and early retirements—“divesting to invest”—make achieving that goal difficult. The Biden administration’s emerging fleet plan incorporates smaller ships and large numbers of unmanned systems, as proposed by many strategists, but high costs, production limitations, and congressional opposition may prevent full implementation.

Key Takeaways

  • In FY 2022, fleet size stays about the same, at 296 ships. Previously ordered ships arrive in large numbers, but the Navy retires 15 ships, 10 early. Navy active-duty personnel decrease by 1,600 to 346,200.

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

  • The future fleet architecture―its size and composition―remains a work in progress. The Trump administration’s 355-ship goal was deemed infeasible because of its high cost and outmoded operational concepts. At the end of its term, the Trump administration articulated a new vision incorporating unmanned systems and distributed capabilities. The Biden administration published a similar architecture, but smaller and with ranges for ship numbers. Cost is a problem with all of these notional architectures because they require large funding increases which may not occur. Nevertheless, some insights are emerging:

    • Carriers: Recent force structure proposals have implied a reduction in the number of carriers. However, contractual commitments and political constraints may have locked the Navy into the present carrier force for many years regardless of strategic considerations. Small carriers seem to be receding into the background once again.

    • Large Surface Combatants: Future architectures envision deep cuts to this fleet, implying production cutbacks and many early retirements. However, industrial base and strategic concerns about shrinking fleet size will clash with the new goals.

    • Small Surface Combatants: All the future fleet architectures show an increase, the only question being how much of an increase and how fast.

    • Amphibious Ships: New amphibious concepts and the introduction of a small amphibious ship imply reductions in the number of large amphibious ships. However, as with the large surface combatants, industrial base interests will clash with the new and lower goals.

    • Attack Submarines: All future architectures envision an increase in the size of the attack submarine fleet. However, slow production in the 1990s and production capacity limits today will limit fleet size until the 2040s.

    • Ballistic Missile Submarines: The Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine program, the Navy’s highest-priority program, remains on schedule and (generally) at target cost but with some risk. Any program delay would disrupt the U.S. nuclear deterrent, while any cost increase would disrupt every other shipbuilding program.

    • Unmanned Surface and Undersea Vessels: These figure prominently in Navy architectures, but the systems remain experimental and none of the larger programs have a production plan. The FY 2022 budget seems to entail a pause in development.

  • Naval aviation is generally in good shape, with stable inventories and acceptable average fleet ages. However, it remains focused on manned platforms.

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