Like a Christmas wish list, the Navy wants a fleet of 355 ships.
It just can't afford it.
"Will we get to 355 ships?" asked Admiral Robert Burke, the Navy's Vice Chief of Naval Operations, at a recent conference. "I think with today's fiscal situation, where the Navy's top line is right now, we can keep around 305 to 310 ships whole, properly manned, properly maintained, properly equipped, and properly ready."
The $205.6 billion for Fiscal Year 2020 that the Navy has requested - bigger than the economies of the majority of nations on Earth - would seem to be plenty. But even if Congress approves that amount, it would only bring the Navy's battle force of warships and support vessels to 314 by 2024. That's more than the current 280-strong force, but only about four-fifths of the 355-ship goal by 2047.
Burke's conclusion was logical: more money equals more ships. "If our top line does not go up, if it remains where it is now and is projected to remain in the future defense plans, that's about where we can get to and do it right, in terms of man those ships and maintain them and have all the ordnance for them and generate readiness," he said. "We would need an increased top line."
A 355-strong fleet would help alleviate the overstretch and overwork that has worn down ships and sailors, and resulted in accidents and collisions to be expected from inadequately trained crews operating vessels deprived of needed maintenance. It would also give the Navy more muscle for simultaneously coping with an assertive China in the Pacific, a resurgent Russia in Europe, and regional threats such as Iran in the Persian Gulf. New ships would also give the Navy enough margin to retire older vessels.
But all this would be expensive. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the building new ships would cost about $27 billion per year until 2047, and about the same amount for a mixture of new construction and refitting older ships that would result in a 355-ship force by 2028. "The smaller fleets would cost less," CBO said. "If the Navy was kept at its current size, shipbuilding costs would average $22.4 billion annually. By contrast, if funding for the fleet was kept at roughly historical levels, shipbuilding costs would average $16.8 billion per year."
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