The Navy Is Making Big Changes to the Way it Plans for Future Ships

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Ships assigned to Destroyer Squadron (DESRON) 23 transit the Pacific Ocean, Jan. 22, 2020. DESRON 23, part of the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group, is on a scheduled deployment to the Indo-Pacific. (U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Erick A. Parsons)
Ships assigned to Destroyer Squadron (DESRON) 23 transit the Pacific Ocean, Jan. 22, 2020. DESRON 23, part of the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group, is on a scheduled deployment to the Indo-Pacific. (U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Erick A. Parsons)

The Navy and Marine Corps need to be a bit more short-sighted when assessing how many ships they need, the acting Navy secretary said this week.

The Navy Department is in the middle of a new force-structure review, which could change the number and types of ships the sea services say they'll need to fight future conflicts. But instead of trying to project what they will need three decades out, which has been the case in past assessments, acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly said the services will take a shorter view.

"I don't know what the threat's going to be 30 years from now, but if we're building a force structure for 30 years from now, I would suggest we're probably not building the right one," he said Friday at a National Defense Industrial Association event.

The Navy completed its last force-structure assessment in 2016. That 30-year plan called for a 355-ship fleet.

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President Donald Trump pledged to help the Navy reach that goal when running for office in 2016. He also signed that number into law in 2017 after lawmakers included a section in the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act that said the service would build up to 355 ships as soon as possible.

Modly has hinted that the next-force structure assessment, which Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday said could be complete within weeks, could go higher than the 355-ship number. And that will be in addition to the Navy's mysterious "ghost fleet," the still-to-be-developed unmanned surface and underwater vessels that can operate largely without crews.

On Friday, Modly said basing the plans on a 10-year view of future threats is more realistic. Thirty years ago, he said, there was more concern about threats from Russia than China. Now, the Navy and Marine Corps are shifting their sights to a possible fight in the Pacific.

The new force-structure assessment will affect far more than just ship numbers, Modly added.

"It helps us understand what type of trajectory we should be on," he said. "... What are the ships? What are those platforms? That sort of suggests the type of people you need, it suggests where they should be based, how you need to ramp up the industrial base, what type of weapons should they carry?"

The Navy and Marine Corps are working closely together on the new force-structure assessment, which is another shift in how the planning was done in the past. Gilday and Marine Commandant Gen. David Berger are pushing for stronger integration between the sea services to counter China's rise and activities in the South China Sea.

Berger said last week that Marines won't just deploy on amphibious assault ships in the future, but possibly littoral combat ships and next-generation frigates as well.

He also said the services are going to need a lot of small ships for distributed operations. In his planning guidance released last year, Berger said the service would no longer push the Navy to build 38 amphibious assault ships.

Large ships, he said last week, could leave Marines and sailors vulnerable.

"A distributed maritime force ... drives you toward more," Berger said. "Smaller, but capable."

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at gina.harkins@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.

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