The Navy plans to complete the next Force Structure Assessment (FSA) in 2019, but it will first complete an interim report to help inform the next defense budgeting cycle, a top Navy official said today.

The interim report will be pulled together “just to review of any indications of changes so we can inform the next budget,” Vice Adm. William Merz, deputy chief of naval operations for warfare systems (OPNAV N9), said at a panel at the Defense News Conference on Wednesday.

Vice Admiral William R. Merz, Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Warfare Systems (OPNAV N9). (Photo: U.S. Navy)
Vice Admiral William R. Merz, Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Warfare Systems (OPNAV N9). (Photo: U.S. Navy)

However, he cautioned, “we’ve got to be careful not to bypass the analytical training that really justifies and supports what we’re trying to do.”

Merz said it normally can take a while to put an FSA together. The process starts with the Navy working with combatant commanders to plan scenarios and review threat perception. Then, the Navy runs through war games for a “Navy answer,” which then is analyzed by independent study groups.

He noted some new combatant commander have switched out, which may slow down the process a bit. 

Merz said he is looking for the next FSA to move beyond the previous report that led to the Navy seeking 355 ships in the future fleet. He is looking for “some level of nudging on the different ships,” like more or fewer attack submarines, more small surface combatants or large surface combatants as necessary for the force.

The last FSA was released in late 2016 after a year-long study and was conducted by the previous Secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus. The FSA estimated a future fleet that included 12 aircraft carriers, 104 large surface combatants, 52 small surface combatants, 38 amphibious warfare ships, 66 attack submarines, 12 ballistic missile submarines, and other support vessels (Defense Daily, Dec. 16, 2016).

Merz said a great deal of the new fleet makeup and emphasis will depend on the Navy’s perception of the new frigate FFG(X) program. Once the downselect is finished, understanding how much capability and modernization the service is “actually going to be able to do on that ship” will inform future plans, he added.

The Navy awarded five conceptual design contracts for FFG(X) to competitors Austal USAHuntington Ingalls Industreis [HII], Lockheed Martin [LMT], Fincantieri’s Marinette Marine, and General Dynamics’ Bath Iron Works [GD] in February. The competition is set to end in June 2019 and will result in a detail design and construction competition and award in FY ’20 with one winner (Defense Daily, Feb. 16).

Merz also mentioned the next FSA will not be a radical departure of the Navy’s direction in terms of basic ship makeup. It will not look at canceling big resources like aircraft carriers or destroyer because the Navy usually operates as an “away game” projecting power across the world, he said.

Separately, the chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces argued while the last FSA examined total ship quantity and basic mix, the next one needs more details on issues like integrating unmanned systems, Marine Corps and amphibious integration, and future platform capabilities.

“This next one needs to give us some fidelity on what Navy architecture should be. So now what’s the next generation of surface ships and what should that be capable of doing,” Rep Rob Wittman (R-Va.), said.

“What’s happened right now is we’ve done a lot in a lot of different directions with unmanned systems. Now’s the time for us to be able to say, ‘You know, what do we exactly expect in those systems? How will those systems integrate into the surface ships of the future, into the submarines of the future?” Wittman added.

The USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70). Photo: U.S. Navy
The USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70). Photo: U.S. Navy

Relatedly, panel member Bryan Clark, senior fellow at the Center of Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said the Navy could link capabilities to strategy.

He suggested the FSA start peeling out what strategies and parts of the larger strategy individual parts of the future fleet support. So as the Congress and public discuss how feasible it is to reach 355 ships within a few decades, the Navy could explain certain fleet segments and their capabilities are tied to more specific missions.

Then, if reaching 355 ships by the 2030s is seen as less doable, the Navy could still show certain new ship levels and capabilities capable of performing some missions the Navy wants to perform within the new strategy.