Anything smaller would jeopardize the Navy’s ability to meet future mission requirements, CNO says.
While the Navy is not planning to submit its annual 30-year shipbuilding plan to Congress until after the Quadrennial Defense Review is completed early next year, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead said he expects the future fleet will have at least 313 ships, the number of ships in the service's most recent plan.
"As an operator, the 313-ship fleet is what I see as the floor of what we need," he told an audience at the National Press Club during a Government Executive leadership breakfast on Tuesday.
The Navy earlier this year irked some lawmakers when service officials said they would not submit their annual shipbuilding plan, which is required by law, because the QDR would inform future plans and potentially render anything submitted earlier moot.
"We'll be better able to produce a plan that has a better prediction [after the QDR is complete], rather than generate a plan simply to generate a plan," Roughead said.
The size and composition of the fleet has been of great concern to Navy watchers in recent years. At 283 ships, the service has the smallest fleet since 1916. While the array of capabilities in the fleet is critical, so too is the number of platforms. A ship only can be in one place at one time, and with global responsibilities increasing, the Navy has been forced to deploy an ever-growing percentage of its ships at any given time to meet security requirements.
Under current budget projections, the Navy cannot build and maintain a 313-ship fleet without a substantial infusion of procurement funds or a dramatic reduction in shipbuilding costs. A recent paper by naval expert Ronald O'Rourke at the Congressional Research Service concluded the Navy would have to build more than 12 ships every year during the next 18 years at an estimated annual cost of $23 billion to $25 billion. Yet during the past 17 years, the Navy has built an average of 5.4 ships annually, and its annual shipbuilding budget is now about $11 billion.
Some analysts have speculated the Navy will seek to reduce the number of aircraft carriers in the fleet as a result of the QDR. Roughead declined to speculate on the outcome of the review, but said he expected the Littoral Combat Ship, a relatively inexpensive ship designed to operate in shallow waters where the Navy increasingly is in demand, would be a key factor in the service's ability to reach the 313 ship goal. (Cost is relative: the first two Littoral Combat Ships have come in at around $400 million; by contrast an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer costs around $1.3 billion and an aircraft carrier around $9 billion.)
Besides championing the LCS, Roughead is a proponent of using common hull designs as a means for delivering more ships at lower cost in the future.
Acquisition costs are only one factor in affordability, however. Roughead said it is critical that the Navy do a much better job of estimating operating costs -- including the personnel costs associated with weapons systems -- over the lifetime of its ships and other major procurements.
"One of the drivers for me is the affordability of being able to operate the force," he said. "Operating costs are going to become more and more important. We no longer have the luxury to say, 'This is a good deal today, let's buy it.' We have to get our arms around [life-cycle] costs."
A transcript of the discussion with Adm. Roughead is beavailable on www.govexec.com.