Three hundred fifty ships is the answer. Now, what was the question?
President-elect Donald Trump has thrown his support behind calls from naval proponents to boost the U.S. Navy’s inventory of combat vessels from today’s 272 to 350. What purposes he has in mind for a brawnier navy are less clear. Will he pursue a strategy similar to President Barack Obama’s but more forcefully, will he scale back overseas commitments, or what?
The answer to that will determine whether 350 ships is the optimal size for the fleet.
Enunciated in 2014, the navy’s officially stated goal is 308 hulls. Three independent “ fleet architecture ” studies are revisiting that number, however. The Navy Staff , the Washington-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments , and the Mitre Corporation are surveying the strategic environment—the rise of China’s navy, an increasingly troublesome Russia, and on and on—and gauging how large a fleet it takes to handle such challenges.
It’s almost a foregone conclusion that the studies’ framers will conclude it takes more than 308 ships. The navy leadership agrees. On Friday the service released its much-anticipated “Force Structure Assessment,” espousing a 355-ship fleet. The leadership will review the fleet-architecture studies and, if necessary, refine the official tally for recommended ship numbers.
But what will the Trump administration do with a bulked-up U.S. Navy? Much has to do with the president-elect’s temperament and outlook on world affairs. On the campaign trail Donald Trump vowed to “make America great again” while putting “ America first .” Good slogans, but not terribly actionable. The trick is to figure out what they mean for the navy in practical terms.
Acting on them could mean drawing down or reconfiguring the U.S. military’s peacetime presence overseas. Putting America first apparently involves convincing allies to assume more of the burden for their own defense. Trump has taken Europe to task in particular. In April, for instance, Trump reminded the Center for the National Interest, the publisher of this magazine, that only a small minority of NATO members spend 2 percent of GDP on defense.
There rest fall short of the alliance standard while the United States spends far more—and bears most of the load of allied defense. Why, asks the president-elect, should America care more about Western allies’ defense than the allies themselves do?
At the same time, though, Trump has pledged to rebuild the foundations of U.S. economic might, and thus the capacity to fund unrivaled armed forces. “Our military dominance,” he proclaimed, “must be unquestioned, and I mean unquestioned, by anybody and everybody.”
Taken together, such statements imply that the president-elect is sympathetic to “ offshore balancing .” That’s the idea, commonplace on university campuses, that the United States should disentangle itself from power politics in the “ rimlands” of Western Europe and East Asia as much as possible. America, say advocates of such strategies, should return in force only in times of dire peril—say, if a domineering power or alliance tries to conquer the rimlands and thence poses a threat to the Western Hemisphere.
Short of such mortal threats, offshore-balancing proponents would leave rimland nations to tend to their own defense. Let them balance the Chinas and Russias of the world so Americans don’t have to.
What does this imply about prospects for a 350-ship U.S. Navy? First consider the peacetime navy. There are many forms of offshore balancing, some less offshore than others. Trump’s words suggest that he may prove amenable to restoring a standing U.S. fleet presence in the Mediterranean Sea. Europeanists have been clamoring for Washington to return to the middle sea—and cancel the Obama administration’s “pivot” to the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean—almost since the administration announced the pivot in 2011. President Trump may heed their calls, and a 350-ship navy would furnish enough ships to do it.
That would constitute a sea change. Since the Cold War, the Mediterranean-based U.S. Sixth Fleet has shrunk from a serious fighting force centered on an aircraft-carrier task force to a command ship homeported in Gaeta, Italy, and four guided-missile destroyers at Rota, Spain. The destroyers, however, are assigned there as sentries to ward off ballistic-missile attack, presumably from Iran. This is not a force configured to do battle with the Russian Navy or other mischief-makers.
In a sense, then, the new administration’s maritime strategy could resemble a throwback to the Cold War. Restoring the Sixth Fleet to something resembling its former size and shape would reaffirm U.S. military supremacy. Yet guarding Europe from offshore would preserve Washington’s flexibility should NATO countries refuse American pleas to contribute more to the common defense.
After all, deployments can be canceled. Ships can be sent elsewhere or kept at home. Vigor would coexist with standoffishness in U.S. maritime strategy.
It’s also likely, given Trump’s America-first leanings, that ships would rotate through the Sixth Fleet from U.S. East Coast seaports rather than making the Mediterranean Sea their permanent home. Here too, the incoming administration could sustain America’s defense commitments for now—while signaling it will no longer tolerate free-riding from allies.