Pentagon's Plan for a 500-Ship Navy Calls for More Unmanned Vessels

sea hunter
The autonomous test vessel Sea Hunter is a model for potential unmanned vessel development in the Navy (DARPA file image)

By The Maritime Executive 10-07-2020 07:33:07

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has unveiled the Pentagon's long-awaited plans for naval shipbuilding, and the top-line number - a 500-ship fleet by 2045 - is capturing attention. It is substantially bigger than the Navy's previous 355-ship goal, and the new DOD-written plan calls for up to half the total to be composed of unmanned or optionally-manned ships. 

Esper's program for "a more lethal, survivable, adaptable, sustainable, modern and larger force" would see a substantially different force structure. It envisions eight to 11 supercarriers, suggesting a downward revision from the 11 vessels in the current inventory. To supplement a smaller nuclear carrier force, the plan calls for the construction of as many as six light carriers the size of a big-deck amphib, potentially modeled on the USS America. These would provide forward presence at a lower cost. On deck, they would host unmanned aircraft of all classes, including fighters. With fewer large assets, the Navy's structure would shift towards small surface combatants, expanding to 60-70 manned smaller vessels from the previous plan for 52.

Below the water, Esper's plan calls for a dramatically increased number of attack submarines. The current inventory stands at 51, and the plan would see this fleet grow to as many as 80 hulls. This element is the secretary's top priority, and he emphasized that it should begin immediately with the expansion of the Virginia-class program to three units per year.

The most revolutionary element of the plan calls for the development and construction of as many as 240 unmanned and optionally-manned vessels, including surface and subsurface assets. Unmanned systems have become a major research focus for the Navy in recent years: they can be dispatched on high-risk missions without endangering personnel, and they cost less to build and operate. Built small and in large numbers, they could bring the service's goal for "distributed lethality" into fruition. 

This shipbuilding plan would radically increase the size of the combatant fleet, and to keep it running while deployed, Esper's office is calling for a massive expansion in combat logistics force ships - the cargo- and fuel-carrying naval auxiliaries operated by Military Sealift Command. At present, the Navy's requirements call for 32 of these civilian-crewed vessels, but Esper's plans call for as many as 90. This expansion would create a significant infusion of new business for American commercial shipbuilders.

A fleet expansion on this scale would come with a fiscal cost, and Esper pledged that it would not be taken solely out of the Navy's operating accounts. Instead, he said that he is committed to sourcing "additional funding from across the Department of Defense enterprise, funding that was harvested from ongoing reform efforts such as combatant command reviews, ‘fourth estate’ reforms and other initiatives." These DOD savings would fuel an expansion of the Navy shipbuilding budget to 13 percent of the service's total top line - the same percentage seen under the Reagan administration. It would be a cash infusion of about $10 billion more per year than the level the Navy requested in 2016. 

Shipbuilding is half of the equation for building a larger fleet, but maintenance is also key, and the Navy has had significant challenges in completing repairs and yard periods on time - especially at its public shipyards. "We cannot build and sustain our proposed fleet without the ability to service and repair a greater number of vessels," Esper said. "We will continue our efforts to revitalize and expand the Navy’s four shipyards, while promoting partnerships with private shipyards across the country - without pulling from the shipbuilding account."

Esper also called for reining back combatant commander demand for naval assets in order to prevent vessels and personnel from getting worn down prematurely. The plan calls for prioritizing Indo-Pacific Command tasking and limiting low-level operational demands in other regions, allowing more units to focus on readiness for high-end combat.