After two years of modest budget requests, speculation has run high that the Navy is abandoning its goal of reaching a 355-ship fleet. But a new 30-year shipbuilding plan released by the service alongside its fiscal 2019 budget request Monday shows a path to its desired buildup that increases procurement of large and small combatants and leverages service-life extension programs to reach the 355-ship target sometime after 2050.
The plan would reach established goals for each ship class in that timeframe except for carriers, which would not achieve a target of 12 ships until after 2060, according to the plan. But officials note that the strategy is also scalable, allowing the Navy to accelerate the building.
"The Navy realizes that a plan to achieve today's warfighting requirement in three decades represents an unacceptable pace in the context of the current and predicted security environment," the document states. " ... By setting the conditions for an enduring industrial base as a top priority, we ... could attain the warfighting ... target of 35 ships as early as the 2030s."
Long-range building plans show largely a largely steady acquisition strategy that would alternate between two and three large surface combatants per year over the next 30 years and hold steady at two small surface combatants per year.
In the five-year future year defense program plan, the large surface combatants the Navy is buying are Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, and the small combatants are littoral combat ships and the frigates that will follow them.
The plan also calls for two attack submarines per year, a dozen ballistic missile submarines over the next three decades, and five large payload submarines. The latter are all set to be purchased in the last 12 years of the future shipbuilding plan.
Amphibious ships will account for 27 of the 355, according to the plan. The document shows annual purchases of one to two amphibs between Fiscal 2022 and 2034, with only seven years in the plan without at least one new buy.
As for carriers, the plan reflects a compressed acquisition timeline, with carrier purchases shifting from one every five years to one every four after Fiscal 2028.
In all the long-range plan calls for the purchase of 274 new ships by Fiscal 2048, with procurement ranging from seven to 13 ships per year over the 30-year span. Over the next five years alone, the Navy plans to buy 54 new ships, 11 more than were part of the plan a year ago.
The plan notes that service-life extension programs for six Ticonderoga-class cruisers, four mine countermeasures ships, and the first of up to five Los Angeles-class attack submarines are built into the next five years to maintain capabilities and end strength. The document adds that these life extensions may be key to reaching 355 ships at an accelerated pace.
"Because SLEs are relatively short-term extensions, they are carefully balanced with the steady long-term growth profiles discussed above to ensure overall higher numbers when SLEs expire," the document states.
Though the plan provides a path to 355 ships, the uncertain nature of the budget and the inherently changeable nature of the strategy raise questions about how much the document will resemble actual procurement over the next three decades.
The plan does, however, add a caveat: that unmanned systems may play a role in future planning and increase the capability of the Navy fleet in yet-to-be-determined ways.
"For [Fiscal 2019], unmanned systems are not included in the shipbuilding plan; rather, they are accounted for in advanced capability weapons and sensors portfolios," the plan states. "Navy is committed to unmanned capabilities and will continue to evaluate progression as they potentially move more towards viable platform replacement options."