Navy to Rethink Force Structure Composition

By Jon Harper

Photo: Navy

The Navy will conduct a new force structure assessment next year which could have major long term budgetary implications.

The most recent review, released in 2016, called for ramping up the size of the fleet to 355 ships. The service had indicated it would need about $20 billion annually in the coming years for its shipbuilding plan, even though its force level goal wouldn’t be achieved until the 2050s under that blueprint.

However, the Navy will conduct another force structure assessment in 2019, said Vice Adm. William Merz, deputy chief of naval operations for warfare systems.

It will look at the planned force mix and assess whether the service needs to adjust it for each type of ship, he said.

“We’re still very committed to that [355 ship] number, but we’re only committed to the point where it’s the right mix of ships,” he said. “If we build 300 of the wrong types of ships then that 355 becomes meaningless.”

Bryan Clark, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and a former Navy officer, doesn’t expect the total ship count called for in the new study to deviate much from the current goal.

“But you will see probably some significant changes with regard to the mix,” said Clark, who is familiar with the thinking of Navy planners. “There’s going to probably be a reduction in the number of large surface combatants and maybe more smaller combatants.”

The service could procure unmanned vessels to make up for the reduction in capacity that might result from having smaller manned platforms, he said.

Clark also sees the potential for more small-deck amphibious ships.

“They might start treating the large-deck amphibs as F-35 [joint strike fighter] carriers to a greater degree, which means you might have to shift some of the capacity onto … smaller-deck amphibs” and buy more of them, he said.

The aircraft carrier and submarine requirements will likely stay the same, he said. However, consideration will be given to using extra-large unmanned underwater vehicles to augment submarine capacity and perform lower-end missions such as intelligence gathering, he added.

The new study should provide greater clarity about the expected capabilities of next-generation platforms and unmanned systems, and explain how they will be integrated into the force, said Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., chairman of the House Armed Services seapower and projection forces subcommittee.

“Congress would be looking for that fidelity in the next force structure assessment so we can resource properly [and determine] how to begin the planning and decision-making for that,” he said. “We ought to be having those discussions now and determining where we need to go.”

A significant change in the force mix could have major implications for the cost of a naval buildup, Clark said.

Buying smaller surface combatants instead of larger ones would be less expensive, he noted. In future years, the Navy might also end up procuring more extra-large unmanned vessels that could carry missiles in lieu of more pricey Virginia payload modules, he said.

“As unmanned vehicles mature and fiscal constraints start to bite … you could see unmanned vehicles providing ways to reduce the cost of the shipbuilding plan,” he said. 

Topics: Budget, Navy News, Shipbuilding, Defense Department

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