Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday said last week he wants the Navy to be at least 500 ships strong, a comment that immediately raised expectations of a more aggressive plan by the Navy to expand beyond the roughly 296 ships currently in service.
Gilday told reporters in San Diego that based on the Trump administration’s Battle Force 2045 plan that called for 400 manned ships, as well as other assessments done by the Navy over the last several months, he believes the Navy fleet needs at least 200 more ships on the water.
“I’ve concluded, consistent with the analysis, that we need a naval force of over 500 ships,” he said, according to DefenseOne.
But getting there won’t be easy, and Gilday made it clear that a big chunk of his proposed fleet expansion reflects a distant future hope. Here’s our breakdown:
A return to the goal of a 355-ship fleet
Gilday’s comment is essentially a recommitment to the goal of a 355-ship Navy, something he supported last year. He broke it down this way:
"I think we need 12 carriers. I think we need a strong amphibious force, to include probably nine big-deck amphibs and another 19 or 20 [smaller amphibious warships] to support them,” said Gilday, who said another 30 smaller amphibious ships would also be needed.
“Sixty destroyers and probably 50 frigates. Seventy attack submarines and a dozen ballistic missile submarines. About 100 support ships,” he added.
This means Gilday is thinking of a fleet made up of roughly 263 warships, plus 100 support and logistics ships, for a total battle force fleet of 363. That puts him slightly above the prior goal of a 355-ship fleet, and at the higher end of the 321-371 ship range the Navy outlined in last year’s 30-year shipbuilding plan.
The rest are unmanned… and in the future
Gilday gets to his total of 500+ ships by calling for a huge fleet of unmanned vessels. But Gilday indicated this is not a goal that can be met today.
“[P]robably, looking into the future, 150 unmanned” vessels, he said.
A growing unmanned fleet has underpinned some of the Navy’s more aggressive fleet expansion plans, but has also led to criticism. Some lawmakers, including Rep. Elaine Luria (D-VA), have raised questions about whether the Navy is really ready to harness the technologies that would allow it to build a sizeable unmanned fleet, and have warned against reducing the size of the manned fleet in anticipation of doing so.
Easier said than done
Gilday’s comments last week immediately created an expectation of an expanding fleet. BreakingDefense said his remarks were “notable” given that the Pentagon will soon submit a budget plan for FY 2023 and is also working on a new 30-year shipbuilding plan. The headline on the DefenseOne story said, “Expect a Navy Fleet Plan of 500 Ships, CNO Says.”
But if 2021 is any guide, Gilday’s comment may only reflect the ongoing tension between the Navy leaders who want more ships, and a Biden White House that put forward a budget plan last year that would have shrunk the fleet. That budget plan showed the White House holds the cards, and that talk from Navy leaders about expanding the fleet was just that – talk that doesn't have to come true.
Last year’s obstacle for the White House seems clear: it can’t very easily push for a larger Navy when Democrats in Congress are pushing to shrink defense spending. There are no indications that dynamic has changed.
It may take escalating threats in Ukraine and Taiwan for 2022 or another seismic event to break out of the pattern set in 2021.
Barring that, 2022 seems likely to follow 2021’s playbook. Gilday and other Navy leaders will express their support for a larger fleet over the next few months. Then, they will be forced to bow to the political reality faced by the Biden administration and watch as their plans for the Navy become mere aspirations.
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