Is a 500-Ship U.S. Navy Really Possible?
Drone warships may let the Navy increase its numbers, but questions over the right mix and the necessary budgetary support remain.
Chinese Naval modernization, emerging high-tech weaponry and massive fleet expansion effort are putting growing amounts of pressure upon the U.S. Navy as senior leaders continue to work with Congress and Pentagon leaders regarding an optimal fleet size configuration plan.
The Navy’s fleet size “aim point,” which may or may not come to fruition, was still to pursue a 500-ship fleet as of late last year, yet budget considerations, threat developments and new technologies could change this plan.
Last Fall Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley told SeaPower Magazine that Congressional and Pentagon budget support will be needed to approach this aim point in the next twenty-five years. The Future Naval Force Study, released last year, was reported as calling for 143 to 242 unmanned surface vehicles (USVs) and unmanned undersea vessels (UUVs), including 119 to 166 USVs and 24 to 65 UUVs.
Many Congressional decision-makers now deliberating fleet size issues and budget variables, regardless of any arrived upon final number, seem extremely concerned about the threats posed by the Chinese Navy.
“Fleet size considerations need to examine a combination of capacity and capability. So it’s two factors. It’s not only quantity, but its quality. You know, for years, we looked at the Chinese and said ‘they got quantity, but they don’t have quality.’ Well, let me tell you, the Chinese have quality now,” Rep. Rob Wittman -(R) Va., ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces, told The National Interest in an interview.
A quick look at the Chinese government-backed newspapers lend plenty of evidence to Wittman’s comment. The Chinese are doubling their numbers of destroyers in just the next five years and adding a new class of high-tech, stealthy Type 055 destroyers. In addition, Beijing has already fielded two new amphibious assault ships and will soon launch a third. China is also adding new Jin-class ballistic missiles submarines armed with much longer range JL-3 nuclear missiles. Finally, Beijing is building carrier-launched fifth-generation stealth fighter jet variants and, perhaps of greatest concern, rapidly growing its fleet of aircraft carriers. China has already copied U.S. Navy dual-carrier warfare preparation exercises by deploying several carriers at once in the direction of Taiwan and the South China Sea.
A report in the Chinese government-backed Global Times newspaper last year says China’s third carrier is likely to formally enter service by as soon as 2025. Unlike the Ukrainian-built Liaoning and Beijing’s first domestically built carrier, the Shandong, the third Chinese carrier is not built with a ski-jump ramp to help its warplanes take flight. Rather, it looks more like a large, flat-decked U.S. carrier and includes the use of an electromagnetic catapult exactly like the technology now used by the U.S. Ford-class.
“The aircraft carrier is still the most powerful platform for power projection, and the concept is still extraordinarily vital. If it was not the Chinese wouldn’t be building aircraft carriers. So they are looking to catch up because they understand you’ve got to deploy power away from your shores,” Wittman said.
Regardless of its eventual numerical size, it is clear and self-evident that the Navy’s future fleet will consist of a mix of manned and unmanned platforms operating in close coordination with one another to support an integrated and networked force.
When large numbers of drone ships are factored into the equation, the possibility of building a 500-ship Navy seems somewhat more attainable, given that the drone ships will operate in many different shapes, sizes and form factors. Also, many of them can be similar and therefore easier to produce and they greatly fortify the Navy’s “mothership” strategy which calls for large platform manned ships to operate large numbers of interconnected drones.
“What we have to look at is, you know, what can our platforms do? What can we do to make our main platforms even more effective? What can we do in developing unmanned platforms that have a reliable and dependable level of function?” Wittman asked.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.