Navy’s 355-Ship Goal Sparks Controversy

By Stew Magnuson

Photo: Navy

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The Navy’s plan to grow from 281 to 355 operational ships within the next 20 years continued to be a contentious issue at the sea service’s biggest conference of the year.

An article appearing in the Sea-Air-Space conference’s show daily April 10 criticized Adm. William Merz, deputy chief of naval operations for warfare systems, for being a “soft-pedaler” of the shipbuilding plan.

“Capability is where we would really like to put our energy,” Merz said on day one of the Navy League's annual conference in National Harbor, Maryland. “That’s where we can turn capability and make our fleet more lethal much more quickly than just building capacity.”

He added: “We would caution everybody that 355 is a target. It’s much more important to be focused on the sum of the parts. … The sum of the parts is way more important than the actual target number.”

The National Defense Authorization Act of 2018 made the 355-ship Navy policy. A 350-ship Navy was first broached during President Donald Trump’s campaign in 2016. The shipbuilding plan at the time had the service topping out at 308 ships although analyses carried out during the Obama administration said the need was much higher, according to a March 27 report on the plan published by the Congressional Research Service.

The revised force structure assessment calling for 355 ships was released in December 2016, shortly before the change of administrations. Critics have said the plan is either not aggressive enough, or unrealistic.

“Apparently I hit a nerve in the press when I did that,” Merz said of his capacity-versus-ship numbers remarks on day one.

He expanded on his thoughts during a Tuesday morning panel. “The simple reason is we can turn capability a lot faster than we can grow to the fleet to 355. So while we are committed to growing the fleet as our foundation going forward, we are keeping a very keen eye on these new technologies that are coming in and our ability to quickly get them out to the fleet [and] to make the current fleet more capable,” he said.

Merz listed artificial intelligence, robotics and hypersonics as three of the aforementioned technologies.

“That said, the current fleet is still too small,” he added. “We can’t be in all of the places we need to support our strategy and that leads to the capacity side and the 355-ship Navy.”

The plan the Navy put forth to Congress on how it will achieve the goal is by far the “most detailed, highest fidelity plan. … We account for every ship we think we need to buy between now and the end of that plan.”

Under the plan, the fleet will grow from 281 to 326 five years from now. That will be followed by a “trough” of retirements and the management of service-life extensions before pushing on to 355.

“We put a lot of effort and focus on the correct mix of ships,” Merz said.

“This is where I have to be careful how I characterize it because I do not want to give the impression that we are coming off of a 355-goal because it certainly is the focus, but it is absolutely important we get the correct mix of ships in that 355 because that is all based on analysis and the lethality we need,”

Anything less than that mix will require a larger fleet, he added.

— Additional reporting by Vivienne Machi

Topics: Shipbuilding, Navy News, Maritime Security, Defense Department

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