If U.S. Navy officials have their way the service will become smaller as part of an effort to increase in size, but U.S. lawmakers may not support such a bold course of action. In fact, according to two of three scenarios outlined in the Navy’s latest long-range shipbuilding plan, it won’t be able to reach the required 355 ships called for by Congress any time soon.

At best, the Navy will be able to reach a 355-ship fleet in 2042 and getting there would require additional funding.

Varying Options

The document also highlighted the barriers to growing the size of the fleet, which included limited budget growth of just 2.1%, which is lower than current inflation rates. It also noted industrial base limitations, which wouldn’t procure all platforms at the desired rate – such as destroyers (DDGs), nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs), and Constellation-class frigates (FFGs) – of two ships per year.

The first two options provided to Congress also offered varying levels of commitment to unmanned technology as well as amphibious warfare.

Currently, the U.S. Navy acquires destroyers and submarines at a two-a-year rate, but builders have increasingly been delivering them behind schedule. The first two options presented call for the Navy’s purchase of just a single submarine or destroyer in some years so that schedules can be met.

Navy officials have also warned of past “boom and bust” cycles with shipbuilders that have existed since the end of the Second World War. That has resulted in a large number of ships becoming obsolescent at the same time, resulting in a new “boom” in shipbuilding to maintain its inventory of ships meant to address current global threats.

The service simply can’t afford such an option in two of the scenarios.

Plan Ahead

The first and second scenarios laid out by the Navy wouldn’t see much fleet growth and instead would top out at just 316 and 327 ships, respectively. That is far short of the statutory 355-ship goal set a few years ago. Moreover, the second scenario would make slight cuts to the destroyer and amphibious fleets, trading those platforms in exchange for more attack subs and small combatants, including unmanned assets.

The first option is now considered the baseline by Navy officials. It follows the priorities that were set forth in the fiscal year 2024 (FY24) budget request. It would also delay the move from the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer Flight III design to the next-generation DDG(X) ship, and push that transition back to at least the early 2030s. That would also allow for more land-based testing to reduce risk to future surface combatants.

The first option would further continue the Constellation-class frigate program at a 1-2-1-2 – also known as a “sawtooth” – procurement rate. This plan does not, however, reflect a need for the Navy to add a second construction yard. In addition, the plan called for a transition from the current Virginia-class attack submarines to the future SSN(X) by the mid-2030s.

The second option would place far more emphasis on attack submarines but also on unmanned vessels within a similarly constrained spending topline. This option would further provide more time for the Virginia-class submarines and some SSN(X) boats over the next decade instead of fully transitioning to the newer and likely more expensive, platform.

Furthermore, option two would see a further delay in the shift from the Arleigh Burke-class destroyers to DDG(X), as it would put a limit on spending on both of the destroyer platforms. Instead, the Navy would acquire a larger number of submarines, more combat logistics force ships, and more Large Unmanned Surface Vessels by using the money freed up by limited destroyer procurement and the hybrid Virginia-SSN(X) procurement strategy.

Option number three would also grow the fleet, but does not reflect any budget or industrial base constraints. It would also accelerate aircraft carrier procurement to buy them on four-year intervals instead of five-year cycles, while it would see the acquisition of the next-generation SSN(X) and DDG(X) platforms at a rate of at least two a year to help grow those fleets.

Smaller to Get Bigger

The plans have already created uncertainty for shipbuilders. Yet, the differences in the three tracks laid out by the Navy might only truly become apparent a decade from now – even as all of the plans would shrink the fleet before a restoration to a larger size.

The Navy would seek to divest older and less-capable ships, and the fleet could even bottom out at 280 vessels by as soon as 2027 before rising back to 300 in 2030.

Some U.S. lawmakers don’t like what they have heard in these plans.

“The Navy’s shipbuilding plan is a blueprint to end America’s command of the sea,” said Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS), ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, in a statement Tuesday. “It not only fails to articulate a way to reach the Navy’s battle force requirement but also proposes shrinking our fleet in the near term. This suggestion indicates our defense leaders have no real plan to address the existential threat China’s growing navy poses to our interests.”

Two Carriers to be Retired?

It isn’t just the smaller vessels that could be retired in the coming years if the Navy has its way. Though the Navy has sought to offer two of its Independence-class Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) up for foreign military sales, as it will refocus the LCS on mine countermeasure missions and requires fewer in service; it is also seeking to decommission two nuclear aircraft carriers back-to-back.

This would include retiring the now-48-year-old USS Nimitz (CVN-68) in 2026 after the service is able to squeeze in one more deployment for the first-in-class supercarrier; while the USS Eisenhower (CVN-69) would be retired a year later.

Following her final deployment, Nimitz will travel to HII’s Newport News Shipbuilding to begin the deactivation process at the Virginia shipyard. That could mean at the end of the decade, the shipyard will have two decommissioned carriers, and one or perhaps even two carriers in overhaul along with the new carriers Enterprise (CVN-80) and Doris Miller (CVN-81) that are under construction. It would seem like quite the juggling act for Newport News.

Regardless of what is actually approved, by all accounts the U.S. Navy is going to become much smaller before it can grow again in size.

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Peter Suciu is a freelance writer who covers business technology and cyber security. He currently lives in Michigan and can be reached at petersuciu@gmail.com. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.