Building a 355-Ship Navy: It’s Not Just the Number, It’s the Mix

September 25, 2017 Topic: Secuirty Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: MilitaryTechnologyNavyU.S. NavyWarChinaRussia

Building a 355-Ship Navy: It’s Not Just the Number, It’s the Mix

Why do we need a Navy and what do we expect it to do?

Burkes originally were intended to take up anti-surface and anti-air missions. The original design of the ships did not even come with a hangar to store the helicopters necessary to perform anti-submarine warfare missions. However, the mistake was noticed and a design modification was soon implemented to incorporate a hangar and the Burke become truly a master of all trades. Its 96 VLS cells, 75% of the Ticonderoga’s capacity, allowed it to carry anti-air, anti-surface, anti-submarine and land attack missiles in appropriate ratios for the threat in the regions it was deployed to. At 9,700 tons, the Burke class is as heavy as many World War II light cruisers, and it increasingly took up that role, both as an independent cruiser and as a carrier escort. The construction of the class was originally intended to end with the completion of the 62nd ship, but the threat environment and the stable nature of the design convinced the Navy to re-start production in 2012 after a short intermission. Current plans are to add as many as 22 additional “Flight III” Burkes to the original 62, making the Burke the longest lasting and most extensive production run of ships in the Navy’s history.  It will also create excess capacity in large missile shooting surface combatants, at least based upon requirements to escort the carrier. However, independent ballistic missile defense (BMD) missions in eastern Europe and northeast Asia are also driving requirements.


Frigates have been an integral part of the United States Navy since its earliest years. In 1794, naval architect Joshua Humphrey designed the original six frigates that served the nation so well during its early crises. Frigates were small, light ships built for speed. Too small to stand in a sailing line-of-battle, they were nonetheless considered essential and served as the eyes and ears of the fleet. They also escorted and protected sailing merchantmen moving to and from overseas ports. This role continues to characterize frigate duty in modern day.

During the Cold War, when the United States main strategic focus was the Soviet Union and supporting our NATO allies in Europe, the American Navy fielded between 60 and 100 frigates at any given time, making up 10-20 percent of the fleet. The focus of these ships was anti-submarine warfare and convoy escort. If the “balloon” went up and a general land war broke out in Europe, the frigates were to ensure the safe delivery of U.S. troops and equipment to the continent. They also performed naval presence missions, showing the flag in various locals to assure local governments of the United States’ interest in their security and to uphold US national interests through freedom of navigation operations as well. Frigates thus relieved larger combatants of the need to perform “milk run” missions, allowing the cruisers and destroyers to focus on “high-end” tasks.  Today the United States Navy has no frigates in its inventory, but historical models suggest that frigates should make up 36-73 ships of a 355-ship fleet depending upon the governing fleet strategy and mission focus. Given the current challenges to the free navigation and free trade, as well as the relative inexpensive nature of frigates (~$800M for a frigate vice $1.8-2.4B for a Burke class destroyer), consideration ought to be given to procuring frigates in larger numbers. The Navy is currently in the process of issuing a Request for Information from industry, including foreign shipbuilders, regarding designs for a new frigate class. Hopefully the Navy will build between 30 to 50 ships derived from a robust frigate design.

“What about combat credibility?” some will say with regard to the frigate, and they would be correct. Frigates would not be a front line combatant in a modern anti-access/area denial environment, but then again, neither would a destroyer, except for escort/defensive missions in company with the super carrier. Submarines, however, will take up positions on the front line and remain there, largely unseen, until they run out of torpedoes, missiles, and mines. Yet, the US Navy is woefully short of nuclear powered fast attack submarines.

Submarines have been around for over a century. Quiet and unseen, they were, are and will be the ultimate stealth platforms capable of penetrating and operating well within the A2AD “bubbles” that could be erected by those who would make themselves the enemy of the United States. The advent of nuclear power only added to their lethality, allowing these “boats” to submerge for months at a time without a requirement to surface for air or to recharge batteries. The United States Navy has also led the way in platform quieting, dramatically reducing the range at which its submarines can be passively detected by underwater sensors. Fast attack submarines are designed to do what their name suggests: attack enemy surface combatants, merchantmen and submarines. In the latter case, submarines, because they live far beneath the ocean’s surface, are often best equipped to detect enemy submarines through the various paths that sound travels under water. More recently submarines have added land attack missiles to their repertoire and begun to participate in long range precision strike missions. Submarines have also taken strong roles in highly secret intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance missions as well. 

During the Cold War, driven by operational demands, the US Navy routinely operated 80-100 fast attack submarines in its fleet, which equated to about 15-20% of the force. In a 355 ship Navy, this would reflect 53-71 boats. Unfortunately, the Navy’s fast attack inventory is on a steep downward slope and is projected to drop from 52 boats in 2016 to 41 in 2029. This would represent the fewest number of attack submarines in the inventory since 1915.  In order to achieve the appropriate operational ratio, the US Navy could extend the lives of some of its Los Angeles class (Improved) submarines currently scheduled to retire as well as increase its annual production of new Virginia class submarines from two per year to three. Both options should be executed.

Nuclear Ballistic Missile Submarines, otherwise known as “Boomers,” were conceived in the 1950s to ensure that the nation had a survivable second-strike option in the event of a nuclear war. Nuclear power allowed these boats, loaded with numerous inter-continental ballistic missiles tipped with multiple nuclear warheads, to disappear into the deep waters of the Atlantic or Pacific for months on end to hide and remain undetected, awaiting orders that every member of their crews hoped would never come.  The number of missiles carried by these weapons of mass destruction are limited by 1992 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties, which altered the present number of boomers in the US inventory from 18 Ohio class ballistic missile submarines to 14 during the 1990s. The four Ohio class boats stricken from their ballistic missile defense missions were repurposed as nuclear powered guided missile submarines, each carrying 154 conventionally armed Tomahawk missiles. Presently the Navy is planning to purchase twelve new “Boomers” at a cost of $6-8B each to replace the current inventory beginning in the 2020s.

It would be a mistake to consider fleet architecture without addressing the makeup of the carrier’s air wing. During the Cold War the air wing was composed of a broad assortment of aircraft and possessed an average unrefueled range of nearly a 1,000 nautical miles.  However, during the 1990s, the Navy began to retire its Cold War air wing, replacing the diverse collection of aircraft with the FA-18 Hornet, a reliable multi-mission aircraft that was limited in its range. Naval aviation based its air wing composition decisions on its assumptions that the carrier would operate in largely permissive environments where sortie generation rather than aircraft range would dominate operations. However, the enemy zigged while the Navy zagged, investing in Anti-Access/Area-Denial technologies designed to push the carrier and its air wing outside of their effective range. Investments in the FA-18 Block III Super Hornet as the F-35C Lightening II will begin to buy back tactical range, but the true potential game changer could be the Navy’s new MQ-25 Stingray if its design supports penetrating strike as a mission.

The balance of ships and aircraft within a fleet’s architecture matters. Having a fleet with no frigates is like a baseball team taking the field without its outfielders. Too few fast attack submarines would be like a quarterback lining up without a line of guards or tackles on a football field. Considering past fleet architectures and current mission sets, a future 355-ship fleet emerges comprised of 12 carriers, 35 cruisers, 72 destroyers, 64 frigates, 65 fast attack submarines, and 12 ballistic missile submarines. Other ships, amphibious assault ships, expeditionary fast transports and various auxiliaries, would make up the remaining ninety-five ships.  It should be understood these reflect the bare minimum numbers. Strict adherence to actual requests from regional combatant commanders would result in a fleet of 445 ships.

Creating a 355-ship fleet will not be inexpensive. It will cost nearly an additional $25B per year in shipbuilding, maintenance, training and personnel costs, but a large scale war would run into the trillions per year. In the end, investment in a fleet comprised of the right types of ships in the right numbers and proportions will be, as Theodore Roosevelt once said, “the surest guarantee of peace.” Congress should move quickly to set aside the restrictions of the 2011 Budget Control Act and rapidly fund the Navy to grow it to 355-ships.  Such a move will renew the United States’ commitment to strategy of maritime supremacy and ensure credible global leadership.