Building a 355-Ship Navy: It’s Not Just the Number, It’s the Mix
There is a debate ongoing within national security circles regarding the size of the United States Navy. How many ships does the nation require to uphold its interests on the high seas? Simultaneously collisions, groundings, the deaths of Sailors and firings of admirals as well as GAO reports revealing 100-hour shipboard work weeks have all raised questions as to the internal makeup of the fleet and its external role in the world. Conversations regarding the path to a 355-ship Navy have been subsumed by questions about how many Sailors each ship requires and how much training do they need? These are first principle, building block questions that go to the foundation of the Navy, and lead to the primary question that all must ask: Why do we need a Navy and what do we expect it to do?
The Navy was recognized by the Founders as the guarantor of free trade and the lead agent of the nation’s defense; the first on the scene, in even the earliest war planning scenarios. That is why the Constitution charged the Congress to “maintain a Navy” while only requiring that the legislature be prepared “to raise an Army” if conditions demanded. The Navy was seen as enduring, the Army as transitory. In the years following World War II, national leaders advocated for a strategy of maritime supremacy; a Navy strong enough to fight and win not only against a single opponent, but against every likely combination of opponents. Ronald Reagan, the president who campaigned for a 600-ship Navy, stated his views on maritime supremacy, “We must be able in time of emergency to venture into harm’s way, controlling air, surface, and subsurface areas to assure access to all the oceans of the world.” In other words, the Navy needs to be able to establish a salient of supremacy in any maritime region and visit violence at will upon the nation’s enemies.
Today the Navy has 278 ships, but a survey of the requirements advanced by regional combatant commanders reveal that the Navy needs a minimum of 355 ships to meet operational demands for 85-100 ships at sea at any given moment. The 355-ship threshold called for by the nation’s leadership, including the Commander in Chief, President Donald Trump, represents a net increase of 78 ships. This number has been identified after careful analysis of the eighteen maritime regions where the United States has recognized national interests. Within these regions analysts have examined the local security requirements (not everything requires an aircraft carrier) and the rotational ratios needed to keep a ship persistently forward deployed. Depending on the distances involved and the bases the ships originate from, it could take two (Caribbean), three (eastern Atlantic), four (western Pacific), or even five (Arabian Gulf) ships to keep on warship on station. These ratios are driven in part by the amount of time required to maintain a ship (3-6 months in shipyards after returning from a deployment), training a crew (six months) transit to the deployment location (up to a month), execution of the deployment plan (six to nine months) and then the transit home (again, up to one month.