Will the arriving Biden administration want a 500 ship Navy? Maybe. Perhaps if you include drones.
Recently departed Defense Secretary Mark Esper outlined the clear goal to reach 500 in his recently discussed Battle Force 2045 report.
“This new force-level goal calls for achieving a fleet of more than 500 manned and unmanned ships by 2045, including 355 manned ships prior to 2035,” Esper told reporters, according to a Pentagon transcript.
Will Biden’s Pentagon embrace this 500-ship approach? If the Obama administration is any guide, the answer may likely be no, meaning Biden may well adopt his previous administration’s position that technological superiority was a far more pressing and impactful emphasis than purely increasing ship numbers.
This stance, debated at great length by many in recent years, raises some very interesting and pertinent questions, such as just how much of a difference would having several hundred more ships make? Certainly, the issue of both global force presence and technological superiority are of great importance. Yet, could a fleet with longer-range precision weaponry, advanced sensing and vastly superior multi-domain warfighting ability compensate for any kind of a deficit in fleet size?
Granted, fewer ships saves highly sought after Pentagon budget dollars, but could there be a tactical advantage in any way regarding the use or deployment of a smaller ship footprint? In recent years, the Navy’s preparation for great-power, blue or “open” water maritime warfare against a sophisticated, high-tech adversary has emphasized a number of things, including the implementation of “Distributed Maritime Operations” (DMO). This strategic approach favors the use of disaggregated, yet highly networked maritime forces relying upon long-range precision weaponry, air-ground-surface surveillance and the operation of less “condensed” force structures. This decreases vulnerability to enemy attack, meaning a more dispersed or less aggregated is harder for an enemy to destroy, while also optimizing networking and multi-domain operations.
The largest dynamic with this question, however, may lie in the emergence of unmanned systems. Many Navy and Pentagon weapons developers talk at length about the tactical impact of deploying large numbers of integrated air, surface and undersea drones. This explains the growing emphasis upon Navy Expeditionary Sea Basing and the use of Amphibious Assault Ships as “mother ships” performing command and control over a vast fleet of dispersed and differently assigned unmanned systems. The Navy is already fast-tracking medium and large Unmanned Surface Vessels which, among other things, will be engineered with advanced sensors, large-scale weapons platforms, sonar and other kinds of anti-submarine systems, radar and likely an ability to conduct command and control missions. Interconnected drone boats, both above and below the surface, are exploding throughout the U.S. Navy in numbers and sophistication, bringing previously unprecedented measures of reconnaissance, resupply and attack missions.
Esper did say the 500 warships will include manned and unmanned systems, so it may be that both the Trump and Biden administrations will seek to optimize the latest in artificial intelligence, autonomy and drone boats to expand considerably to a larger fleet. In the end, this may mean both administrations ultimately do something quite similar. The Navy will also have input as well, given the scope, depth and impact of its many force-posture strategies.
Finally, any margin of technological superiority is not necessarily assured, and global force presence in an increasingly threatening world is expected to be of great importance. China is, most notably, the most significant factor impacting this equation; the Chinese already have a 350-ship fleet that is larger than the U.S. Navy and is developing a fifth-generation sea-based aircraft as part of an overt effort to rival or even surpass America. It may be that, when it comes to ensuring global strategic waterways, a 500-fleet Navy including drones and manned ships will be necessary to match China’s clear expansionist aims.
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.