“We’re going to have to have a much larger fleet than we have today, if we’re serious about great power competition and deterring great power war, and if we’re serious about dominant capability over something like China or some other power that has significant capability,” Milley said, according to a recent report in SeaPower Magazine.
An increasing, and predictable funding stream of U.S. budget dollars will be necessary to accomplish this, he added, explaining that the “international rule-based order that arose after World War II was, for seven decades, was maintained by the U.S. Navy “perhaps more than any other element,” Milley said.
Citing an “aspiration” to achieve the Pentagon’s stated 500-ship fleet goal within the next twenty-five years, Milley explained the goal as an “aim point” quite necessary in light of Chinese military growth. China, Milley said, poses a “longer term, almost existential challenge.” A massive naval build up is needed to counter China, he said. China already operates more than 300 ships and is larger than the current U.S. Navy. In addition, Beijing is also adding new carriers, destroyers, amphibious assault ships and drones at an alarming rate, a reality now generating massive attention at the Pentagon.
“I’m not saying you’re going to have a war with China. I’m saying we want to prevent a war with China,” Milley added.
Part of the move to pursue a 500-ship fleet rests upon the hope for as many as 140 to 250 unmanned vessels, what Milley referred to as “sailorless ship, robots on the water and under the water.”
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. Furthermore, they could greatly fortify the Navy’s “mothership” strategy which calls for large platform manned ships to operate large numbers of interconnected drones.
“In the changing battle environment, air, land and sea forces will need to be small, widely distributed and difficult to detect while remaining movable and highly lethal using long range precision, directed fires,” Milley said, according to the SeaPower report.
Modern warfare changes the equation in a radical way, removing the likelihood of traditional, more linear force-on-force engagement limited to a narrow or clearly defined geographical area.
Long-range weapons and sensors, over-the-horizon aerial nodes, undersea-surface-air-land networking and emerging space weapons and warfare technologies will expand warfare in seemingly limitless ways. No longer will a fleet of battleships or a carrier strike group simply target a geographical region for targeted attacks.
However, given the expected budget realities, and the extent to which the coronavirus has diminished available funding, Milley said he was not optimistic that a timely budget with about 3 to 5 percent real growth would be a “realistic thing in the coming year.”
There are several reasons why it is likely to make sense to pursue an ambitious, 500-ship strategy, should budget dynamics evolve as hoped for.
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.