The U.S. Navy hopes to operate as many as 402 ships by 2050. The service’s new plan includes doubling its numbers of amphibious assault ships and small surface combatants such as Littoral Combat Ships and its new FFG(X) Frigates, adding nearly thirty new attack submarines and adding nearly forty Combat Logistics Force vessels, according to its recently released 30-Shipbuilding plan.
Perhaps the most significant element of the plans for 402 ships is that that number does not appear to include the large numbers of unmanned ships and surface drones the Navy is now in the process of adding to the force. The numbers of drone ships could be substantial as the Navy is already well underway with an effort to add as many as twenty-one large surface and undersea drones within just the next five years. Drone boats are also vital when it comes to evolving applications of AI, greater autonomy and manned-unmanned teaming. Therefore, adding an unmanned fleet to the plan of 402 ships by 2050 could easily bring the Navy above its wish for a 500-ship strong fleet.
The inspiration for the details contained in the Navy’s 30-year plan emerged following the completion of the Navy’s Future Naval Forces Study.
“The focus of the FNFS study was to identify the benefits and associated risks of three alternate future fleet architectures in order to inform future naval force structure decisions and the 30-year shipbuilding plan,” the plan writes.
The plan cited a concurrent need to modernize, increase size, balance undersea and surface boats and sustain the operational fleet over time.
“The funding profiles detailed in past shipbuilding plans highlighted the fiscal challenge associated with the combination of strategic recapitalization—procurement of the Columbia class SSBN—and the imperative to invest in readiness recovery, improved lethality, and a larger great power competition fleet,” the plan states.
An interesting report from the U.S. Naval Institute characterizes the Navy’s December 2020 plan as a massive increase beyond even recent proposals, writing “the Navy projected in its FY 2021 budget request that it would buy just 44 ships from 2021 through 2025, spending $102 billion to do so. The new plan shows an 86-percent increase in the number of ships the service would buy in the next five-year Future Years Defense Program, and a 44-percent increase in shipbuilding and conversion account spending.”
A visible and seemingly very significant pattern seems to be reflected in the plan, as it not only seeks to massively enlarge its fleet of amphibious assault ships from thirty-one to sixty-two by 2050, but also double its number of Small Surface Combatants. This reflects an interesting move toward smaller, more agile and potentially more dispersed ship operations likely designed to fortify the Navy’s Distributed Maritime Operations strategy.
This kind of force configuration would certainly be well-positioned to optimize manned, unmanned teaming and fast, forward deployed reconnaissance and strike missions. Such a strategy also brings the advantage, according to the Shipbuilding plan, of freeing up larger warships such as destroyers and cruisers for other more pressing maritime warfare missions. A force structure like this would also help optimize the Navy’s strategic plan to use larger ships as command and control “host” platforms coordinating groups of smaller ships, including large numbers of drones.
Greatly increasing the fleet of logistics ships would also seem to reveal an attempt to align with the Navy’s Distributed Maritime Operations strategy as more disaggregated ships may be farther apart and more significantly in need of extended logistical support in terms of supplies, weapons sustainment and other things.
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 Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.