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Navy sends more mixed signals on fleet size: 350+ by 2040

The Navy this week tossed out a new target fleet size that seems likely to further confuse lawmakers and raise more questions about whether the Navy is able to provide a clear operational strategy.

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday released his 2022 Navigation Plan, which continues to promote the use of seapower to deter China, Russia and other adversaries.

When it comes to force design, the plan calls for a mix of manned and unmanned ships that appears to set a new target for the fleet, one it wants to meet two decades from now.

“In the 2040s and beyond, we envision this hybrid fleet to require more than 350 manned ships, about 150 large unmanned surface and subsurface platforms, and approximately 3,000 aircraft,” the plan said.

While this target is vague and doesn’t necessarily conflict with past estimates, it could be a sign the Navy is already moving away from the most aggressive target in the Navy’s shipbuilding plan that was released earlier this year. That plan outlined three possible scenarios: two of which called for 305-307 manned ships by FY 2035 and 318-322 ships by FY 2045, and a third that specifically called for 363 manned ships by FY 2045.

The Navy's constantly changing numbers were the subject of a Politico story this week that said the cause is a split within the Pentagon.

To the frustration of House and Senate lawmakers, both the shipbuilding plan and the navigation plan seem to be at odds with the latest Navy’s budget proposals that aim to shrink the fleet from the current roster of about 297 ships.

Last year, the Navy budget called for building seven ships and retiring 15, while this year’s Navy budget sought to build eight ships and retire 24.

Just as it did last year, Congress this year has responded by authorizing a much larger fleet than what the Navy proposed. In mid-July, the House approved a defense policy bill that would let the U.S. field another 10 ships and stop the Navy from decommissioning as many ships as it planned.

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