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The Navy Needs 355 Ships by 2030

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John R. Mills

After several years of budget growth, energy, and a glimmer of new shipyards, the defense budget release for Fiscal Year 2025 was much anticipated. When the FY 2025 submission was released, there was a delayed response as defense analysts struggled to process what just happened.

Instead of growth, the theme was shrinkage. There was a distinct delta between the talking points of the secretary of defense’s press release and the Comptroller’s submissions from the services. Across the services, platforms, and systems will be retired faster than they are replaced. For example, six Navy ships are being acquired, and nineteen battleforce ships are being retired. The simple math shows a net loss of thirteen ships from the Navy, yet the secretary’s announcement is overflowing with aspirational platitudes. Professor James Holmes said simply, the “New Defense Budget Makes No Sense.”

Radical lane changes or new directions in budget submissions are normally over-explained well in advance. In one example, the Army is giving away a significant portion of its JLOTS (Joint Logistics Over The Shore) expeditionary port capability to the Gaza Pier and is replete with talk of a watercraft renaissance, yet the Army Rail Float Containerization Equipment Line Item (P.43) goes down twenty-five percent. The optics of the DOD budget submission are deadly serious for the adversary nations of America. They see right through the textual floweriness, smell weakness, and suspect a lack of resolve.

The Duncan Sandys Navy Budget

The Navy remains the tip of the spear for generating and projecting deterrence in the Western Pacific. However, the Navy is clearly shrinking. The latest shipbuilding plan has been released. It celebrates 387 battleforce ships by 2054—not exactly inspiring. In 1957, British Defence Minister Duncan Sandysintroduced a White Paper that proposed canceling almost all British defense projects because the future was missiles and nuclear deterrence. This cancellation was a real bloodbath. The UK Aerospace Industry was decimated, and the Ministry of Defense went into a tailspin, leading to the spectral UK military of today. A Duncan Sandys moment for the U.S. Navy just happened right in front of everyone’s eyes. The one difference is that the 2025 budget is essentially cuts and schedule extensions without introducing a decisive new direction, as Sandys attempted.

The Navy’s 2025 Budget states, “The Secretary re-emphasizes three enduring priorities: strengthen maritime dominance, build a culture of warfighting excellence, and enhance strategic partnerships with an addition of new maritime statecraft to prevail in this era of intense strategic competition.” It is really, really hard to draw a line between Secretary Del Toro’s three priorities and the numbers in the Comptroller’s books. Ships and airplanes become more expensive in Operations and Maintenance (O&M) as they age—and O&M is the largest portion of the Navy’s $257.6 billion budget at thirty-four percent. O&M is what pays for fuel, food, travel, and other non-capital expenses. This spikes when things like the Red Sea conflagration flare up. The Navy’s 2025 budget is not about growth; it is about financial survival, foraging for O&M, and managed decline.

Seeking An Industrial Base Miracle

Retiring legacy systems to save O&M and re-capitalize with new systems is implied in the Navy submission. This is a reasonable strategy, but it must be amplified with accelerated delivery schedules of new capabilities. An underlying theme that extrudes from the submission is the growth of the Navy’s autonomous vessels, surface and sub-surface. But 2054 is so far away that the aspirational end state is irrelevant, considering the velocity of developments in the Western Pacific. Relatively simple and inexpensive autonomous drones are not an illogical pathway—they have been used quite effectively by Ukraine to drive the Russian Navy into deep enclaves where they are useless and still attacked with different forms of autonomy.

Whether ships or autonomous vessels are the pathway forward, none of the throughput models mathematically work with the existing or slightly improved industrial base. Nothing will alter the status quo until something meaningfully changes. Secretary Del Toro has been on a whirlwind of visits to the West Coast and America’s Pacific partners. The Boeing model—a vertically integrated model where international partners like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and the Philippines deliver modular assemblies for final integration, assembly, and fitting out—is innovative and worth pursuing. A reasonable plan passionately implemented is better than the perfect plan delivered late. The only problem is that these partners are on the front line. Forward rock outcroppings of Kinmen Island (a territory of Taiwan) are only 4,000 feet away from the line of separation with China, and American special operators are already in place working out plans to make the first 4,000 feet as costly as possible.

John Paul Jones Panache and Messaging Needed

387 by 2054 is just not the right spirit or rallying message. Forty-One for Freedom was catchy, understandable, and inspiring. 355 by 2025 is better but unachievable, so perhaps “355 (by 2030) for Freedom” is better (substitute whatever the correct number is; it has changed many times in the shipbuilding plan). Defense budget military construction plus ups for government-owned-contractor-operated facilities are in order. Secretary Del Toro chided the contractors, “You continue in some cases to goose your stock prices,” missing the point entirely.

The defense industrial base has contracted for multiple reasons, but the return on investment for investors is just not there, and it is too difficult with government work. This is especially true when dealing with the reality that new, greenfield, modern facilities are needed on a large scale. This budget submission was a significant misstep, but with a clear slogan and more realistic funding, 355 for Freedom is achievable. Alacrity is needed as 4,000 feet is not a lot of warning.