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US Navy publishes new plan for more than 350 crewed ships and submarines by 2045

28th July 2022 - 16:42 GMT | by Harry Lye in London

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Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Chafee fires a Tomahawk Block V missile. (Photo: USN)

The US Navy is pushing for a fleet of over 350 crewed ships and submarines and around 150 large USVs and UUVs under the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Adm Mike Gilday's Navigation Plan 2022.

The new 2045 force goal comes after the USN submitted a three-pronged 30-year shipbuilding plan to US lawmakers earlier this year, giving three paths forward for the future fleet.

The new goal, detailed in the CNO's NAVPLAN, would see the USN grow to a fleet of over 350 crewed vessels, around 150 large USVs and UUVs, and an estimated 3,000 aircraft in the 2040s.

In the document, Gilday writes that the USN would require 3 to 5% budget growth above actual inflation to modernise and grow the fleet.

Failing this, Gilday wrote that the service would prioritise modernisation 'over preserving force structure'.

Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) senior adviser Mark Cancian told Shephard that the biggest challenge facing the growth of the USN was that the new force goal was an aspiration, not a plan.

Cancian added: 'The document itself notes that it requires 3 to 5% real growth per year. In addition, it does not account for constraints by the industrial base.'

The fleet described in the document would comprise some 12 Columbia-class SSBNs, 12 aircraft carriers, 66 attack submarines including Virginia-class and future SSN(X) boats, 96 large surface combatants such as the DDG(X), 56 small surface combatants like the Constellation-class frigate, 31 amphibious assault ships, 18 Light Amphibious Warships, and 82 combat logistics and auxiliary vessels.

Topping this off would be the around 150 large USVs and UUVs, which Gilday wrote would increase the fleet's capacity for distribution, ISR advantage and missile magazine depth, among other benefits.

Cancian noted that most elements of the force structure outlined in the NAVPLAN align with previous plans by highlighting the figure of 96 large surface combatants as much larger than previously planned levels outlined by the Biden administration.

The CSIS adviser also highlighted the increased number of amphibious ships at 31, again higher than previously published numbers.

Despite this, Cancian said the 18 Light Amphibious Warships figure is lower than previous totals discussed by the USMC.

Jerry Hendrix, Sagamore Institute senior fellow and author of To Provide and Maintain a Navy, told Shephard that he believes the USN needs a fleet of 450 ships, 'with a growing percentage of those ships trending towards unmanned as those technologies evolve'.

With this in mind, Hendrix said the CNO's new NAVPLAN had merit and was 'heading in the right direction', recognising the growing threat Chinese and Russian naval forces posed.

Asked if he thought the goal of 350 ships by the 2040s was too late, Hendrix said he felt 'dramatically expanding' USN ship repair capacity to keep the vessels already in the fleet in better shape offered a quicker path to the goal.

'While it is true that it could cost up to $500 million to modernise and repair some of our older ships, it is also true that it will cost over $3.5 billion to replace them hull for hull,' he argued.

'With an expanded Navy budget, part of that money should go towards expanding our ship repair industrial base and to funding a Service Life Extension Program for some of our older ships.' Hendrix explained.

On the target of 350 ships by the 2040s, Cancian said: 'The problem isn't the distance of the goal; the problem is the profile.

'In the near term, the Navy is retiring ships faster than it is building them, so the fleet is actually getting smaller.'

Cancian said that a fleet growing steadily towards a distant goal provided reassurance that 'the plan is working', adding that a shrinking fleet that claims to expand in the long-term 'does not seem credible.'

'Further, the plan notes that its highest priority is modernisation rather than fleet size, which signals that expansion will be a lower priority.' Cancian noted.

Gilday's NAVPLAN says the USN is operating in a battlespace that is growing in lethality and complexity, adding that global challenges stem primarily from three trends: the erosion of deterrence given rapidly developing Chinese military capability, an increasingly aggressive China and Russia undermining the 'international rules-based' order, and the accelerating pace of technological change.

The CNO writes that decisive naval power is essential for the security environment, adding that the US cannot 'cede the competition for influence'.

'One problem with all of these naval force structure plans is that they do not describe how they came up with the numbers or the assumptions behind them.'CSIS Senior Adviser Mark F. Cancian

The document includes a graphic showing maritime regions and chokepoints coming under increasing threat, including the Øresund, or the Sound, which separates Denmark and Sweden; the Bosporus and Dardanelles, which allow passage into the Black Sea; the Strait of Hormuz; the Bab Al-Mandab; the Korea Strait and the La Pérouse Strait at the Southern and Northern tips of Japan respectively.

Cancian said: 'The plan refers to global requirements, including Europe and the Middle East, as well as the Pacific, and describes a robust maritime strategy of forward deployments, sea control, power projection, and maritime dominance. The proposed fleet size is approximately the level of other Navy assessments.

'The fleet is, therefore, likely large and capable enough to counter the maritime threats that the US faces. One problem with all of these naval force structure plans is that they do not describe how they came up with the numbers or the assumptions behind them.'

The USN's response to increasing global challenges is strengthening so-called 'integrated deterrence', a cornerstone of the classified 2022 National Defence Strategy (NDS).

The NAVPLAN outlines six 'force design imperatives' for the USN: expanding distance, leveraging deception, hardening defence, increasing distribution, ensuring delivery and generating decision advantage.

Expanding distance described long-range precision fires across domains and platforms, enabling naval assets to strike targets while increasing survivability.

Deception includes stealth, concealment, electronic warfare and other factors to increase uncertainty in adversary forces and enable the USN to operate in contested environments.

Hardening defence describes integrating directed energy weapons with hard and soft-kill defensive systems to disrupt attacks.

The distribution of forces geographically, according to Gilday, will allow them to threaten adversaries from 'multiple axes'.

The NAVPLAN adds that smaller, lethal, and cheaper platforms further complicate targeting and generate confusion in adversaries.

Ensuring delivery means resilient logistics to 'refuel, rearm, resupply, repair, and revive' distributed naval forces.

Finally, decision advantage envisages the USN being able to 'out-sense, out-decide, and out-fight any adversary' through accelerated decision cycles built on secure networks, accurate data and the implementation of AI.

Harry Lye

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Harry Lye


Harry Lye is Senior Naval Reporter at Shephard Media.

Harry joined the company in 2021, …

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