BREAKING: Pentagon Chief Unveils New Navy Force Level Plans (UPDATED)
Navy photo by MC3 Nathan Burke
The Navy needs a force of more than 355 ships — and more money for vessel construction — to compete with China, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said Sept. 16.
That conclusion is based on the Future Naval Force Study led by Deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist that was delivered to Esper last week.
“This study will serve as our guidepost as we decide on, program and build our future fleet, and conduct follow-on assessments in select areas,” Esper said during a speech at the RAND Corp. in Santa Monica, California, according to a transcript provided by the Pentagon. “It will be a balanced force of over 355 ships — both manned and unmanned — and will be built in a relevant timeframe and budget-informed manner. And we will build this fleet in such a way that balances tomorrow’s challenges with today’s readiness, and does not create a hollow Navy.”
The sea service currently has fewer than 300 battle force ships in its inventory. President Donald Trump has called for a Navy of 350 manned vessels. In his prepared remarks, Esper did not say how many of the ships in the fleet should be manned or unmanned according to the latest force structure study, or by what date particular force levels should be achieved.
“This future naval force will be more balanced in its ability to deliver lethal effects from the air, from the sea, and from under the sea,” he said. “This fleet will be made up of more and smaller surface combatants; optionally manned, unmanned, and autonomous surface and subsurface vehicles; unmanned carrier-based aircraft of all types; a larger and more capable submarine force; and a modern strategic deterrent.”
Esper noted that robotic platforms offer “transformational" capabilities and said industry and the Navy are making “solid progress” with these technologies.
“We are planning ongoing training events to continue developing tactics, techniques and procedures for these platforms,” he added. “These efforts are the next step in realizing our future fleet, one in which unmanned systems perform a variety of warfighting functions, from delivering lethal fires and laying mines, to conducting resupply or surveilling the enemy. This will be a major shift in how we will conduct naval warfare in the years and decades to come.”
To achieve a larger fleet, the Navy will need more money for shipbuilding, Esper noted. “Finding the money within the Navy budget and elsewhere to make it real, is something both the Navy leadership and I are committed to doing."
For fiscal year 2021, the Trump administration requested $207 billion for the Navy, $19.9 billion of which would go toward shipbuilding. Congress appropriated about $24 billion for shipbuilding in fiscal year 2020.
Esper asked for lawmakers' help with finding money for modernization and expanding the force.
“To support critical next-generation capabilities, our future budgets must be able to free up those resources by divesting from legacy systems and lower priority activities,” he said. “We also request the authority to put unused end of year Navy funding directly into the shipbuilding account, rather than see it expire."
Esper also touted the need for cooperation from industry and academia.
“To our private sector partners, particularly in shipbuilding, we must continue to work together to promote a robust and healthy industrial base with modern shipyards, infrastructure and highly skilled workers. We will need your help to match our level of ambition for new capabilities and more capacity in the coming years, with innovation that performs on cost and on schedule,” he said.
“To our partners in academia and at think tanks, … we need your 'outside the box' thinking, your research and analysis to help us adapt to this increasingly complex and challenging environment; to help us refine our future fleet plans and warfighting concepts in follow-on studies; and to do so faster, in order to outpace our strategic competitors,” he added.
Update: A previous version of this story was based on Esper's prepared remarks. It has been updated to reflect his remarks as delivered. His prepared remarks called for an additional 2 percent of the Navy budget to go toward shipbuilding, but he did not mention that figure when he delivered his speech.