Based on a year-long study, the U.S. Navy has concluded it needs to boost the size of its fleet to 355 ships, dozens more than it has now or plans to have in a few years.

The Navy, which currently has 273 ships, is already slated to grow to 308 ships by fiscal year 2021. But the recently completed study, or Force Structure Assessment (FSA), calls for an additional increase of 47 ships, including another aircraft carrier, 18 more attack submarines, 16 more large surface combatants and four more amphibious warfare ships.

Launching of the Virginia-class attack submarine Minnesota at HII's Newport News Shipbuilding division. Photo: HII
Launching of the Virginia-class attack submarine Minnesota at HII’s Newport News Shipbuilding division. Photo: HII

“To continue to protect America and defend our strategic interests around the world, all while continuing the counterterrorism fight and appropriately competing with a growing China and resurgent Russia, our Navy must continue to grow,” Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said in a statement Dec. 16.

Navy officials have hinted for months that the FSA would call for more ships. In addition, President-elect Donald Trump said during the campaign that he would expand the Navy to 350 ships.

“All of the analysis done to date, inside and outside of the Navy, recognizes, as we have for nearly the last eight years, the need for a larger fleet,” Mabus said. “That is why, working with Congress and our partners in industry, we have successfully reversed the decline in shipbuilding that occurred from 2001 to 2009, putting 86 ships under contract over the last seven years. Maintaining this momentum, and the cost-saving business practices we have established, will be critical to ensuring the Navy is able to achieve the FSA-recommended fleet size.”

According to an FSA executive summary, the 355-ship fleet would include 12 carriers, 104 large surface combatants, 52 small surface combatants, 38 amphibious warfare ships, 66 attack submarines, 12 ballistic missile submarines, 32 combat logistics force ships, 10 expeditionary fast transport vessels, six expeditionary support bases and 23 command and support ships.

By contrast, the previous version of the study, conducted in 2012, called for 11 carriers, 88 large surface combatants, 52 small surface combatants, 34 amphibious warfare ships, 48 attack submarines, 12 ballistic missile submarines, 29 combat logistics force ships, 10 expeditionary fast transport vessels, three expeditionary support bases and 21 command and support ships.

The Navy did not indicate when it hopes to reach 355 ships, except to say that the FSA “will be one input to the Navy’s FY 2018 30-year shipbuilding plan.”

Navy acquisition chief Sean Stackley testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee Dec. 1 that if the service received a big boost in its shipbuilding budget, attack submarines, large surface combatants and amphibious assault ships would top its wish list. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the committee chairman, said his panel would support a larger fleet but would demand that the Navy avoid the kind of cost growth that has plagued several existing shipbuilding programs.

In its FSA announcement, the Navy expressed confidence that the industrial base could support the proposed fleet expansion, saying “each ship class called for in the FSA has an active shipbuilding line already up and running.” Matthew Paxton, president of the Shipbuilders Council of America, echoed that comment, saying “the U.S. shipyard industry stands ready to build this fleet of the future.”

Several key lawmakers commended the study’s findings. “This Navy Force Structure Assessment is long-overdue, but welcome news for America’s national security,” said Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. “At a time when our adversaries are investing in weapons systems and engaging in aggressive behavior, this strategy, if implemented, will help boost our fleet, support our security and send a strong signal to allies and enemies alike that American naval power remains a key element of our defense.”

Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.), ranking member of the committee’s seapower panel, said that “given the changing dynamics around the world, the growing demand for our ships and the increasing strain on our fleet, I welcome this reassessment of our force structure requirements. This new fleet target will require the Navy, industry and Congress to work together to build on the work we’ve done over the last several years to lay the groundwork for a larger fleet.”