It is remarkable, given the resource implications involved, how much of a political consensus has formed in the United States around a new, dramatically more ambitious US Navy force goal of 355 ships compared to the previous target of 308.

US Navy ships

By Nick Childs, Senior Fellow for Naval Forces and Maritime Security

Capitalising on this, Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral John Richardson published a white paper on 17 May entitled ’The Future Navy’, injecting further urgency: ’We need this more powerful fleet in the 2020s, not the 2040s‘, he wrote.

The fairly moderate reaction so far to what would, not long ago, have seemed a rather extraordinary prospectus underscores just how much the political winds seem to have shifted in the US Navy’s favour. And yet the challenges remain huge.

The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the earliest date at which the 355-ship plan could be fully achieved is 2035, including in the most problematic area, from an industrial base perspective, that of producing additional nuclear-powered attack submarines. It believes that this would require an average annual increase in the shipbuilding budget of US$5.4 billion over the existing plan, or just over 25% extra. The Congressional Research Service estimate is up to US$5.1bn in average extra annual building costs.

According to Admiral Richardson, analysis shows that the industrial base could support construction of an extra 29 ships (and almost 300 more aircraft) over the next seven years. And he argues that the use of ’hot’ production lines for existing designs, plus a more optimal drumbeat of production, will save considerable sums. But, while that may be true in the longer term, it does not appear to get away from the considerable extra premium that will be required in the short term.

Furthermore, the CNO argues that more platforms alone are not enough; that there has to be a non-linear approach that requires both building and innovation. This implicitly acknowledges that there is a potential tension in trying to add numbers quickly and make both current and future platforms more adaptable, exploiting networking, emerging technologies and unmanned systems. That in itself surely carries an uncertain price tag. The CNO’s recipe includes improved exploitation of modularity, despite or perhaps because of the problems encountered with that concept in the Littoral Combat Ship programme.

Perhaps not surprisingly, in recent testimony before the Sea Power Sub-Committee of the Senate Armed Service Committee, executives from the US shipbuilding industry agreed that the general shipbuilding infrastructure could support accelerated ship production. But they also appealed for stable and predictable future funding.

The CNO’s white paper is in many ways a compelling document. But it is difficult to overestimate the scale of ambition contained in its brief nine pages. It remains unclear what impact it will have.

The paper argues that there is little time – perhaps one year of consolidation and restoring readiness – before talk of producing a bigger and better US Navy needs to begin to be turned into action. That is certainly a challenge to the US political and industrial communities, and to the US Navy itself.

Of course, it represents a challenge to potential adversaries as well. China and Russia are singled out as ambitious global competitors. But this vision, and especially the time factor, will throw down a gauntlet of a different sort to allies and partners, who will need to decide whether and how to keep up.

This analysis originally featured on the Military Balance+, the new IISS online database that enables users in government, the armed forces and the private sector, as well as academia and the media, to make faster and better-informed decisions. The Military Balance+ allows users to customise, view, compare and download data instantly, anywhere, anytime.

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