U.S. Navy's Shipbuilding Plans Draw Scrutiny in Congress

File image courtesy Huntington Ingalls

Published Apr 19, 2023 1:05 AM by The Maritime Executive

The U.S. Navy has released its next long-range shipbuilding plan, and like the last, it has provided Congress with three different options. The first two assume relatively flat budget resources, but have different levels of commitment to unmanned technology and amphibious warfare. The third alternative would require far more funding than currently budget levels - and it is the only one that would attain the Navy's force structure goal of a 355-warship fleet. 

The third alternative is based on the 2018 Integrated Naval Force Structure Assessment (INFSA) analysis, which produced the 355-ship requirement. The newly-revised top end scenario approaches the limits of what the Navy believes that the U.S. industrial base can actually accomplish, according to the service's accompanying explanation. The plan would deliver a fleet of nearly 370 warships by 2052, driven primarily by growth in small surface combatants, attack subs and amphibs. It would also accelerate carrier production slightly, and would keep the number of large surface combatants closer to the current level. The extra cost for shipbuilding to support this alternative would be about $75 billion over the next three decades, plus tens of billions more for additional sustainment and manning. 

The first and second scenarios have much less fleet growth, topping out at just 316 and 327 ships, respectively, far short of the statutory 355-ship goal. The second scenario would make slight cuts to the destroyer and amphib fleets, trading these platforms in exchange for more attack subs and small combatants, including unmanned assets. 

Divest to invest

The differences between these three tracks would only begin to become apparent in the mid-2030s, and all of the plans would shrink the fleet for years before beginning a restoration. Under the Navy's accelerated plan of near-term divestment for older and less-capable ships, the fleet would bottom out at 280 vessels in 2027, rising back to 300 in 2033. In addition, this year's budget request suspends further orders for LPD-class amphibs until the Navy reviews options for reducing cost per hull.

The shipbuilding plan has received a critical response in Congress, where the Navy has come under scrutiny for its proposals to divest unwanted tonnage.

"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."