Last September, apparently lost in the fog of the presidential campaign, came some disturbing news: the Chinese Navy is now larger than America’s. They now have approximately 350 ships and submarines, compared to America’s 293.
True, the U.S. fleet still boasts far more aircraft carriers than China — 11 versus 2 — but that offers little comfort. China’s reputed anti-ship missiles are forcing our carriers further away from the Asian mainland, limiting their effectiveness. More troubling, China is leading the world in ship production. In the past 10 years, China has increased its number of battle force ships by 140, while the U.S. has only grown by 9. Importantly, that trend has accelerated in the past five years; more than 100 of China’s additions were made between 2015 and 2020.
The problem is not just China’s emergence as a maritime power; it is our own seemingly apathetic willingness to cede dominance at sea. Although the past two administrations have agreed that the Navy needs a minimum number of 355 ships to meet its assigned roles, we have taken too few steps to appropriate the necessary funds to expand the fleet or identify what its composition ought to be. The current plan is too small, too slow, too fearful of making more mistakes in the acquisition process.
To be sure, the Navy has done a less-than-distinguished job of planning, building and budgeting its last three classes of warships. The Ford class nuclear aircraft carrier is over budget and overdue. Although procured in 2008, it is not expected to enter the fleet until 2024 because of problems with its launch, landing and weapons elevator systems. The ship simply cannot fight. The $13.3 billion cost is 28 percent more than expected, and the three other ships in the class that are currently under construction will also take between 10 and 13 years to make it to the fleet.
Sadly, the Navy’s track record with two other highly-touted classes of ships — the Zumwalt destroyer and Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) — are similarly dismal. The futuristic Zumwalt was equipped with a gun that used projectiles that were too valuable to fire. And problems with the propulsion system on the LCS are forcing some of the ships into mothballs just six years after commissioning.
China says its navy’s mission is primarily to defend its territorial waters — which it is aggressively expanding. The fleet they are building, however, has clear global capability and enables China to pursue national interests far from home.
America’s Navy has a far more diverse — and geographically dispersed — set of challenges. It includes nuclear deterrence (through our ballistic submarines); power projection (via aircraft carriers); the delivery of Marines (aboard amphibious craft); and the preservation of free navigation for safe commercial trade (destroyers and minesweepers).
The 355-ship fleet size is a reasonable compromise between competing communities within the Navy — surface, submarine, air — and budgetary constraints imposed by the other military services and domestic priorities. Even with the Trump administration’s increase in naval spending — up some $24 billion in the past four years — the Congressional Budget Office estimates that to achieve the 355-ship target by 2034, we need to spend 50 percent more on construction than the current $20 billion annual shipbuilding budget. To put this in perspective, most of the Navy’s $161 billion annual budget goes to personnel ($34 billion), operations ($60 billion), aircraft procurement ($17 billion) and research and development ($21 billion).
Nonetheless, that 355-ship goal very well may be the wrong target to be shooting for. A new book by one of the Navy’s top thinkers asserts that the right number is closer to 456 ships. And the mix of ship types needs to be fundamentally different.
Retired Capt. Henry “Jerry” Hendrix was a Navy pilot and senior staffer in the Pentagon’s prestigious Office of Net Assessment. Armed with a Ph.D. from Kings College (London), Capt. Hendrix posits that the ideal fleet would maintain 11 aircraft carriers — without specifying the actual mix of supercarriers and smaller lighting carriers. But he is adamant about adding 18 large, unmanned surface vessels and 21 large unmanned underwater ships. The biggest (numerical) change would be the addition of 60 new frigates. Although the Navy recently settled on building a variant of the European multi-purpose frigate — with funding for 10 ships already requested from Congress and plans to build at least 20 — Capt. Hendrix argues that we need more: You can’t fake actually being there.
Having spent the past 20 years reinventing itself to better support — and, indeed, create a viable role in — conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Navy is again scrambling to redefine itself. While it needs to address so-called “near peer” challenges from China and Russia, China’s ascent has the potential to warp our strategic thinking. We cannot lose sight of other potential (and unpredictable) adversaries. Iran, North Korea and the Islamic caliphate have not decided to simply close up shop. Such manifold challenges demand a level of fluid and creative thinking that we’ve not seen since World War II. It is unlikely that we can match the efficiencies of that era when we were able to produce Essex-class aircraft carriers — similar in size to the lightning carriers proposed by Capt. Hendrix — in as little as 14 months. But we need to put in place a system, for both senior officers and civilian contractors, that holds them accountable for failing to deliver measurable improvements.
Militaries, it is said, are brilliant at planning for the last war. As proof, one need only look over the Navy’s shipbuilding debacles of the past 20 years. A new federal budget proposal is due from the Biden administration on Feb. 1. Whether or not they delay its submission, it is time to start thinking more realistically about the need for a larger but better thought-out Navy. We shouldn’t put the 355-ship target on a shelf, but in our crosshairs. The 456-ship goal may not be the right number, but Capt. Hendrix is asking the right questions — as should Congress.
Steve Cohen is an attorney at Pollock Cohen LLP and a former member of the board of directors of the United States Naval Institute.