WASHINGTON—Expanding the U.S. fleet from 275 to 355 ships is front and center in plans to restore naval muscle, despite the price tag of $102 billion a year for 30 years, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson said Thursday.
Speaking at the conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation, Richardson said the Navy needs not only more ships, but state-of-the-art technology and information-sharing practices. To keep up with advanced technology and new equipment, personnel will require new and more advanced skills. The fleet itself needs to be able to maneuver with greater agility to fulfill its responsibilities as described in the recently released National Defense Strategy. The strategy calls for a more lethal fleet that can intimidate rivals, such as Russia and China, and reassure allies, such as Japan and South Korea in the Pacific and NATO nations in the Atlantic.
But without ensuring the last element of Richardson’s plan— personnel readiness – the other needs will be useless, Richardson said.
“You’ve got to go out, you’ve got to steam, you’ve got to fly,” Richardson said. “All of those things bring the fleet to life and turn it into actual fleet capability.”
Implementing these large-scale strategic changes will be challenging because a decade of stop-gap spending measures and budget caps set by a bipartisan congressional agreement in 2011 has hurt the ability of the military to create long-term plans. Richardson said.
He said fleet maintenance is one of the first things to take a hit in budget constraint situations, which creates immediate setbacks for readiness even before factoring in the need to grow and develop new capabilities.
The Navy in particular has closely examined the status of personnel readiness and equipment standards after two collisions involving the Japan-based 7th fleet resulted in the death of 17 sailors over the summer. These incidences and the shift in defense strategy to focus on great-power competition with Russia and China as outlined by Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis has led the Navy to re-evaluate its current capabilities and future needs.
Richardson noted that the seas are 400 percent busier than they were during the Cold War, and with Russia and China actively engaged in building their naval power, the ability to execute successful maritime missions could be of critical importance in a potential great-power conflict.
But the undertaking Richardson calls for is a large one: the CBO estimated that it would take about 18 years for the Navy to reach its desired size of 355 ships. The 355 “minimum force structure” number is also higher than the Navy’s previously planned target of 308 ships, which Navy officials told Congress in 2016 would be built by 2021. The 355-ship commitment was part of President Donald Trump’s campaign promises.
“The cost to build and operate a 355-ship fleet would average $102 billion per year (in 2017 dollars) through 2047,” according to the report, and operational costs would peak in between 2037 and 2047 once the fleet reaches the desired size. The House Armed Services Committee projected a slower pace of 25 to 30 years for expansion.
Richardson said that what concrete steps the Navy can take to plan for the larger fleet is “news still to come.”
In addition, the Navy has not determined a “sustainable level” for the size and capabilities for the force with which the Navy is currently operating, according to Richardson.