500 ship Navy is a bit of a pipe dream

ATLANTIC OCEAN (Oct. 1, 2020) An F/A-18E Super Hornet attached to the “Wildcats” of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 131 launches from the flight deck aboard the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69). Ike is operating in the Atlantic Ocean in support of naval operations to maintain maritime stability and security in order to ensure access, deter aggression and defend U.S., allied and partner interests. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Cameron Pinske)

News that Defense Secretary Esper is calling for a 500 ship Navy is good news. We’ve had a Navy too small trying to do too much for some time now, and its been ignored while we stayed focused on fighting terrorism. This resulted in a lot of extended deployments, poorly executed maintenance periods and burned out ships and Sailors.

But while a 500 ship Navy would help, we have a long way to go to get there. When policy makers discuss ships, it’s as if the numbers of ship is what matters. But there is a lot more to it:

  • Personnel. The last time we had 500 ships was in 1991. Since then, we’ve drawn down Navy personnel to about 330,000 to cover about 270 ships. Essentially, to get to 500, we’d have to double the number of Sailors. That would make the Navy larger than any of the other services, and a massive jump in personnel costs.
  • Shipyards. We can’t fix the ships we have now fast enough. Nearly doubling ships would mean we need more shipyards to build and maintain them. Given that American shipbuilding is almost exclusively government, we don’t have a great civilian infrastructure to turn to. So we’re either building new yards (expensive) or building in foreign countries (sending money overseas).
  • Support. Ships have to communicate, and rely extensively on satellite systems, which we don’t have enough of now. Combined with a variety of other support, and the price adds up quickly.

We can get away from personnel costs with more unmanned systems, but unmanned systems still require humans, and considerably smarter people to run them, which the military struggles to keep in, because other companies like Amazon will throw a lot of money at unmanned operators. This only gets worse as AI and unmanned systems spread in the commercial sector.

We’re getting to a tipping point with the Navy. We expect ships to be everywhere all the time, but we don’t have the ships, infrastructure or people to do that in peacetime, let alone war. We’re smart to recognize that, but its going to take a lot more than wishful thinking to get to a sustainable fleet level.

As a side note, the above picture was labeled “Rosy Outlook” on defense.gov. Most appropriate I think.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, or any other government agency.