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Breaking the Mold: How to Build a 355-Ship Navy Today, Pt. 2

Read Part One here.

“It shall be the policy of the United States to have available, as soon as practicable, not fewer than 355 battle force ships.”

-Section 1025, Para (A) of the National Defense Authorization Act for FY2018 (FY18 NDAA)

“Battle force ships are commissioned United States Ship (USS) warships capable of contributing to combat operations, or a United States Naval Ship that contributes directly to Navy warfighting or support missions, and shall be maintained in the Naval Vessel Register” –SECNAVINST 5030.8C

By Keith Patton

Flotillas and Ants Versus the Elephant

Current shipbuilding plans expand the fleet, but no consideration is given to mass producing a warship smaller than the “small surface combatant” role filled by the LCS and new frigates, which are larger than World War II destroyers. The Navy could consider even smaller vessels, less than 100m. These would be of a few different designs, or perhaps one design that can be optimized when constructed for different mission areas. One variant could be an armed replacement for the T-AGOs as they age out of service and to expand their numbers. Another could be a close-in ASW escort for ships. A third would be a surface strike platform with either or both land-attack and anti-ship missiles. The main goals would be ship designs that are compact, can be built in additional shipyards besides the current ones supporting the U.S. fleet, and provide needed niche capabilities. A flotilla of smaller vessels can be in more places at once to show the flag, be part of the deterrence force suggested as an alternative operating concept, and any losses in combat are more easily tolerated compared to large, multi-role vessels. Training would be streamlined as each crew would only have a few missions to focus on. Being able to use more shipyards to produce them would also allow reaching a 355 ship force sooner. However, this would break the mold of building most U.S. surface combatants as multi-mission platforms.

A more radical idea to save costs and accomplish the above is to stop carrier production after the last Ford on order. The existing carrier fleet would still exist, in dwindling numbers, for decades to come and still outnumber any projected rival carrier fleet in size and capability. The Navy has already floated the idea of cancelling the refueling of the carrier Truman as a cost savings measure. By block buying the last two Fords and retiring Truman early, a significant savings is achieved. SECDEF Mattis wanted the savings rolled into unmanned systems (discussed below) and other new capabilities. Additionally, the USN does not have sufficient air wings to equip all its carriers today. For the cost of a Ford class, including crew, multiple DDGs or perhaps a score of small combatants could be procured. They would likely also be produced much faster. However, while this idea would help expand the size of the U.S. fleet quickly, it would not do it within the next decade because the existing Fords are already on the way within that timeframe. This would simply allow a bigger fleet, more economically, in future decades. As such, it might be a pressure release against decisions that expand the fleet sooner but less economically. However, considering  the House Armed Services Seapower Subcomitteee Chairman announced the idea of retiring a carrier early is a non-starter, the political obstacles to early retirement or cancelling future carrier production are enormous.

The Ghost Fleet

The critical first step in a naval war is locating targets – the battle of Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) and Counter-ISR (C-ISR). You cannot hit what you can’t find. The submarine is the pinnacle of this concept, but modern combatants are becoming stealthier in an attempt to reduce the ranges they can be detected from. An example is the Zumwalt destroyers, which reportedly have such a small radar cross-section they are likely to be seen visually before being detected on radar.

However, there is another and perhaps cheaper approach to not being detected – flooding the adversaries ISR network. While jamming systems can deny an adversary information, they also provide it by making it clear that something is producing the jamming. Since high power jamming systems are located on warships and aircraft, the source of the jamming is a worthwhile target, and jamming is itself an active emission. Decoy systems, however, produce a false target. If there are ten contacts, and only one is a warship worthy of expending weapons against, the adversary must sort through all of the decoys to ensure they target the correct contact. This takes time and energy, allowing the warship to gain the upper hand. Alternatively, the adversary could attack all ten contacts. However, they might not have the resources available to attack all of them effectively, and may be expending great effort for low returns.

Does a battle force ship need to be manned? It is not listed in the definition as a requirement. Since a battle force ship must contribute “directly to Navy warfighting,” small, minimally manned or unmanned decoy and jamming vessels would count. DARPA’s Sea Hunter anti-submarine warfare continuous trail unmanned vessel (ACTUV) cold serve as a prototype example. Instead of following an adversary submarine, it could have signal arrays and deployable decoy payloads that could produce radar or radio emissions to mimic a warship. If sufficient power was available, it could also produce high power radar or jamming signals to attract an adversary’s attention. If the Sea Hunter is not cost effective enough, basic merchant hulls could be procured for the same purpose. They could be visually altered to resemble Navy logistics vessels, have noisemakers to better mimic high-value targets, and even periodically launch a drone helicopter to simulate manned flight operations. If not completely unmanned due to feasibility issues of command and control, they could be minimally manned with crew mostly living and working in an armored citadel-like structure, and if the decoy ship succeeds in its mission and draws fire, they are at reduced risk. In some ways this is like the Q-ships that were designed to lure in a submarine and survive torpedo damage to fight back. Procuring 50-100 civilian construction “Ghost Ships” to stretch an adversary’s ISR network with numerous false or less valuable contacts would raise the battle force count, increase fleet resilience, and help protect traditional warships.

Armed Merchantmen

The idea of armed merchant ships is not new. While the 1856 Treaty of Paris continued a prohibition on privateering (privately owned ships permitted by its government to wage war), as noted above military crews were placed in command of armed merchants (Q-ships) designed to lure in U-boats and the U.S. placed the U.S. Navy Armed Guard detachments on civilian ships to operate defensive weapons. During the Cold War, the United States armed its supply and auxiliary vessels with defensive weapons. This practice was stopped as a cost savings measure. Transferring auxiliaries from regular Navy to Maritime Sealift Command and civilian mariners saved hundreds of millions of dollars annually, never mind the cost savings of not having to equip them with expensive weapons and train personnel in their use. Such policy decisions could be reversed and the auxiliaries placed under military command, and then armed again to provide basic self-defense capability. However, this does not increase the count of battle force ships.

Mass-produced commercial hulls could provide a way to quickly increase battle force ship numbers, particularly as escorts or strike platforms. Container ships can carry thousands of twenty-foot equivalent unit (TEU) standardized cargo containers. 100 TEUs could contain the combat system and power requirements equivalent to a modern frigate. Israel has demonstrated a containerized ballistic missile launched from a cargo vessel, and Russia has advertised containerized versions of its Club-K missile family. Containerized U.S. missiles have been suggested by a former Dean of the U.S. Naval War College. It has also been suggested that commercial ships could form the basis of a naval surface fire support platform. Another way of looking at this is that the combat system would be independent of the hull. The cargo vessel would be carrying a capability akin to AEGIS ashore, manned by NAVY personnel or a modern equivalent of the U.S. Navy Armed Guard. These would not be true “arsenal ships” as conceived of in the 90s. They might only carry 32-64 missiles (standard Mk.41 VLS configurations) rather than 500. However, a mix of defensive or long-range strike weapons would free traditional warships of some missions. The slower design speed of commercial vessels would not make them valuable carrier escorts, and they may not be as capable and certainly not as stealthy as modern U.S. surface combatants, but a number of these vessels could augment capabilities like long-range strike, ballistic missile defense, or act as escorts for similarly large and slow logistics vessels. Also, these hulls could be produced very quickly and probably would require lower manning than traditional warships. The 2018 GAO Shipbuilding report showed that the T-EPF and T-ESD designs, largely commercial in nature, were the only Navy shipbuilding programs of the last decade to come in under budget.1

Warship Equivalents

Another line of thought is considering when a Battle Force Ship is not a ship. Can the Navy “break the mold” in the definition of a ship and provide a 355-battle force ship equivalent fleet without 355 actual vessels?

Coastal Artillery Corps

The U.S. Army used to have a prestigious coastal artillery corps. The coasts of the United States have many examples of old, fixed fortifications operated by the U.S. Army for harbor defense. As airpower developed, these defenses became casemented to protect against air attack, or mobile to complicate an adversary’s ability to locate and target them. A modern Army (or USMC) Coastal Defense Corps would have to employ mobile systems. This would not just be to increase their survivability but to allow them to be forward deployed or surged in a crisis or war. The anti-ship capability of the land-based HIMARs rocket was tested during RIMPAC 2018 and future ATACMs rounds are planned to have much longer range and an anti-ship seeker capability. The venerable Harpoon anti-ship missile is already used as a coastal defense cruise missile (CDCM) by many nations and is being considered for U.S. Army and USMC use. The Norwegian Strike Missile or LRASM missile are also potential contenders for a CDCM, as would be the planned Maritime Strike Tomahawk now that the U.S. announced plans to withdraw from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Tomahawk had a land-based variant until that treaty was signed, and the 2017 NDA authorized funds to study a new long-range ground-launched cruise missile. Could a battery of mobile CDCM’s be a “warship equivalent”?

The advantage of these land-based weapons is they could be deployed to allied territory and dispersed to avoid targeting. Their range rings could cover a significant amount of water space, and a camouflaged and mobile land-based weapon would be more survivable than a ship, as well as being more cost effective overall and faster to transport to a theater by air should speed be needed. Batteries of land based CDCM, possibly with their own SAM capabilities as well, could provide a ship equivalent asset for sea denial missions.

Patrol Bombers

The U.S. Navy’s shipbuilding plan to reach a 355 ship Navy (or 335 by FY48), doesn’t address naval aviation specifically. It can be assumed sufficient helicopters and air wings are acquired to support the aviation capable ships in the fleet. However, can the return of a Navy bomber force act as a ship equivalent?  The Navy did field bombers for patrol and strike in WWII – VB squadrons.

This move would both break the mold of a 355-ship navy being composed of ships, and infringe somewhat on the U.S. Air Force mission area. However, USAF bombers are generally optimized for strike against land targets and tasked for such a long-range power projection missions. While USAF bombers can employ anti-ship missiles and drop sea mines, these capabilities were allowed to atrophy for decades and such missions would pull USAF bomber resources away from other traditional USAF missions. A naval bomber would not need deep penetration capability. A naval bomber would be a simpler missile truck to get into position to launch long-range anti-ship missiles or mine a chokepoint that was not protected by adversary air defenses. While the P-8 is capable of these missions, it is more a reconnaissance, sub hunting and patrol aircraft with a relatively limited weapons load compared to a true bomber.

Dedicated VB squadrons, either manned or perhaps as a large armed drone, could provide a long-range maritime strike capability similar to Russia or Chinese maritime bomber squadrons. They could greatly augment the firepower of a surface action group or even a carrier air wing. Their long-range would allow them to rapidly shift missions across an AOR in a way surface vessels cannot. Additionally, unlike surface vessels, they can quickly rearm. While warships provide presence, sustained ISR, and other critical naval capabilities, VB (or VUB) squadrons would provide maritime strike capabilities and deterrent capabilities when actual ship hulls are not available. While USAF bombers could also do this, aircraft directly manned, trained, and equipped by the Navy and optimized for the maritime domain would seem more efficient and in keeping with increasing fleet power to a 355-ship equivalent on a quicker timeline.

License or Purchase Foreign Designs

If current United State battle force shipbuilding cannot produce the required quantity of vessels, could foreign designs be licensed or outright purchased to meet the needs of a 355 ship Navy?  Some options would require a rethinking of U.S. procurement policy and laws. 41 USC 8302, amended most recently by H.R.904, is a U.S. law, more commonly called the “Buy American Act” that requires anything the U.S. government buys be made in the United States. The Presidential Executive Order of 18 April 2017 directed government agencies to minimize exemptions to 41 USC 8302. The law does have two exceptions that could allow purchase of foreign battle force ships. One is that items procured for use outside the United States are exempt. It can be argued warships, and indeed most of the U.S. military, is intended for use outside the United States. Under the concept of regionally designed ships, covered earlier, these warships could be procured from the countries they are forward based in and intended for the defense of. The second is when there is insufficient U.S. production capacity. Since U.S. shipbuilding cannot ramp up to produce a 355 ship navy in a few years, this criteria is met.

The Royal Navy’s Queen Elizabeth-class carrier, while not as capable as a U.S. nuclear-powered carrier, still provides a significant aviation capability at a significant cost savings compared to U.S. nuclear carriers. Procurement of a third hull, before the line goes completely cold, would allow an increase in the Navy carrier fleet faster than if domestic carrier building was the sole source. For a time, the Queen Elizabeth class was planned to have catapults and arresting gear like U.S. carriers, a capability which would make them significantly more capable, at increased cost. In either short take off, vertical landing (STOVL) or Catapult Assisted Takeoff and Barrier Arrested Recover (CATOBAR) configuration, a Queen Elizabeth-class would add to Navy capabilities and battle force ships count.

While an additional aircraft carrier would increase the battle force ship count, it would require appropriate escort and supporting vessels. Additionally, as noted above, the Navy seems to have a greater need for escorts and smaller combatants that can be geographically dispersed for presence, shadowing, or ISR missions, or used in surface action groups (SAG). The new Navy frigate program will eventually produce some ships of this nature, but to rapidly achieve a 355 ship navy, already available foreign designs should be considered. The Israeli Sa’ar V and VI corvettes are 1,000-2,000 thousand tons, have small crew sizes, deck guns, and 32 defensive VLS missiles as well as deck-mounted anti-ship missiles. The Sa’ar V ships were even built in the United States by Huntington Ingalls. A U.S. corvette built to these designs would be well-suited for operations in the 5th Fleet or 6th Fleet AORs and possibly as part of an offensive SAG in PACOM. Both Korea and Japan produce Arleigh-Burke-like warships, and there are multiple solid frigate designs available in allied countries. Using foreign builders would allow a rapid buildup and shield U.S. industry from a boom-bust impact. However, it would be politically challenging. There are also fewer options for nuclear submarines.

Diesel AIP

Accelerated U.S. shipbuilding plans do not reach the requested number of SSNs in the fleet until 2042. Indeed, under current shipbuilding plans, the Navy is looking at a valley in attack submarine strength between FY25 and FY36, reaching a low of 41 SSNs in FY30.2 This is a 20 percent decrease in SSN strength as the Navy attempts to reach a congressionally-mandated goal for a 20 percent increase. There appears to be no way for the U.S. to achieve desired submarine numbers for a 355 ship fleet, with current levels of U.S. production.

Several allies produce extremely effective conventional submarines, or conventional diesel submarines (SSP) augmented with Air Independent Propulsion (AIP). These submarines are significantly smaller and cheaper than U.S. nuclear powered submarines. The U.S. has long preferred nuclear submarines due to their higher sustained speeds for transit to a theater, on station times only limited by consumables, and no need to raise a snorkel above the water for a period every few days. However, if forward deployed and perhaps built in the countries they are deployed in, some of these limitations can be mitigated. Soryu-class AIP subs built and operated from Japan would be able to arrive rapidly on station in Asian waters and contribute to the battle force. German Type 212 could provide a similar option in Europe. Both provide critical capabilities in their respective areas, and multiple SSPs can be built and manned for cost of a single U.S. SSN while also being available far sooner than any potential acceleration of U.S. submarine shipbuilding.

The Truly Radical

A final, truly radical idea, is the establishment of a U.S. Navy Foreign Legion. Two different options could be considered. One would be a mercenary, small boat operations force akin to Chinese Maritime Militia, but more overtly armed and associated with the U.S. military. These could be locals recruited into service, or contractors from the United States. Like the French Foreign Legion, they would have to be an official part of the U.S. military despite their foreign status. This would allow them to operate ships counted as battle force ships and under the laws of armed conflict. The small craft, while perhaps useful for some lower end missions, would not count as battle force ships. This idea seems to help more with the manning requirements of a 355 ship navy than with actually achieving the ship count sooner.

An alternate method would to procure foreign warships, as discussed above, and crew them with the US Navy Foreign Legion crews. These would take the form of non-citizens, but under U.S. command and control. In some ways it would be like the Japanese building a submarine or warship, crewing it, and then seconding it to the U.S. Navy. This would both raise battle force ship count and solve the man power problem simultaneously. However, it would also be very “mold breaking” in that the U.S. hasn’t done such a thing with its Navy before, and use of foreign citizens as full crews would be controversial aside from the controversy of non-U.S. built warships. Foreign nationals already serve in the U.S. military, but not a dedicated formations.


This has been an attempt to capture some of the interesting thoughts, from two separate working groups, on how the U.S. Navy could achieve a 355 battle force ship Navy sooner than current plans predict. Several of the ideas above could increase the battle force size, but come at significant economic or political risk to achieving them, like using older or reactivated ships or buying foreign warships possibly with foreign crews. Others challenge Navy established practices by phasing out carriers, giving up SSBNs, or focusing on smaller combatants. Some challenge the idea of what a warship is, what can be counted and what should count as a warship. Is 355 correct? Or is the equivalent capability of 355 ships desired? 

Right now, the Navy has presented a plan to Congress. There may be no need for the above. But the global political situation is rapidly changing, especially with worsening relations with increasingly assertive great power rivals, and the urgent need for a 355-ship Navy could very well come sooner rather than later.

CDR Patton is deputy chairman for the U.S. Naval War College’s Strategic and Operational Research (SORD) Department.  SORD produces innovative strategic research and analysis for the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, and the broader national security community.  CDR Patton was commissioned in 1995 from Tufts University NROTC, with degrees in history and political science and has served four tours conducting airborne nuclear command and control missions aboard the US Navy E-6B Mercury aircraft, and two tours as Tactical Action Officer (TAO) and Combat Direction Center Officer (CDCO) aboard the carriers USS KITTY HAWK and USS NIMITZ. 

The opinions and ideas above do not necessarily represent those of the Department of Defense, U.S. Navy, or the Naval War College. The ideas expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the principal author either. They were drawn from the Breaking the Mold II workshop held at the U.S. Naval War College with invited participants from military, industry, government and academic institutions. The workshop was held under the Chatham House Rule, so these ideas will not be attributed to their originator. Some ideas were specific enough that they are not included here because the idea itself might identify the originator and violate the Chatham House rule.


1. “Navy Shipbuilding,” June 2018, pg. 8

2. Ronald O’Rourke, “Options and Considerations for Achieving a 355-Ship Navy” July 25, 2017. Pg. 6

Featured Image: ATLANTIC OCEAN (Dec. 23, 2018) MV-22 Ospreys assigned to Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron (VMM) 264 (Reinforced) prepare to launch from the flight deck of the Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge (LHD 3) during night flight operations. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Mike DiMestico/Released) 181223-N-UP035-0011

Breaking the Mold: How to Build a 355-Ship Navy Today, Pt. 1

“It shall be the policy of the United States to have available, as soon as practicable, not fewer than 355 battle force ships.”

-Section 1025, Para (A) of the National Defense Authorization Act for FY2018 (FY18 NDAA)

“Battle force ships are commissioned United States Ship (USS) warships capable of contributing to combat operations, or a United States Naval Ship that contributes directly to Navy warfighting or support missions, and shall be maintained in the Naval Vessel Register” –SECNAVINST 5030.8C

By Keith Patton

During the Reagan administration, it was the policy goal of the United States to build a 600-ship Navy. That goal came very close to being realized, but the end of the Cold War and the “peace dividend” resulted in a rapid contraction of U.S. battle force ship count. This is not to say the U.S. Navy became less powerful since current U.S. multi-mission destroyers are far more capable than their 80s predecessors, but the fleet can be in far fewer places at once and is less casualty tolerant.

In 2015, the Navy’s force level goal was 308 ships. In 2016, this was raised to 355. This policy goal was codified by Congress in the FY18 NDAA. Currently, the Navy has 286 battle force ships, or only 80 percent of its own and now the Congressionally stated requirement. Pursuant to FY18 NDAA, the Navy produced a report to Congress with a plan for achieving a 355-ship force level after 2050, but included options to achieve this level by 2030.

What if world circumstances or political decisions forced the U.S. to look at achieving a 355-ship Navy far sooner than in 11 to 30 years? Possibilities range from how to stretch or improve what already exists, to more radical notions of foreign warship procurement, armed merchantmen, and development of a U.S. Navy foreign legion type force.


Some of the current and proposed policies for fleet building are built on numerous assumptions. One, that a 355-ship Navy is necessary. This is codified in the FY18 NDAA, but some the forthcoming ideas will stretch the definition or purpose of a 355-ship Navy. Second, that the Navy is in a technological competition and simply adding hulls to the battle force count is insufficient. These hulls must be capable of adapting to emerging technology rather than simply using what is available today. However, some of the offered ideas focus on using current or less capable designs to reach 355 ships. Third, that it is feasible for the Navy to fund a commensurate increase in personnel and weapons procurement. This is also impacted by the type of ships procured. This assumption is not directly challenged, but is fundamental to manning and arming the fleet constructed. Finally, that the political will exists to champion these changes, which could threaten established programs, industrial bases, or voting blocks.

Stretching What We Have

The Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration has already been told by the Navy that, in the event of a major conflict, there will be insufficient ships to escort a sealift effort to Asia or Europe. Recalling Operation Drumbeat, or the “happy times” of the German U-boat force off the U.S. Atlantic coast in 1942, this is very concerning. 23 merchants were sunk off the U.S. coast by just five Type IX U-boats. For perspective, that is equivalent to 40 percent of the current ship inventory of the Maritime Administration’s Ready Reserve Fleet, which is tasked with transporting U.S. forces in wartime. During U-boat operations, 22 percent of the tanker fleet was sunk, and 232 ships total in seven months. This is more than the entire U.S. merchant marine fleet today. Raising the U.S. battle force ship strength to provide escorts for vital transport and logistics vessels would seem a logical first step.

A quick way to preserve and grow battle force ships is to stop decommissioning vessels and to execute service life extensions on them instead. These would include younger Los Angeles-class SSNs and DDGs. The FY18 NDAA already prohibits the Navy from retiring Avenger-class MCM (Sec 1046). By extending the life of Arleigh Burke-class destroyers to 45 or 50 years, the Navy can reach its desired large surface combatant end strength by 2029. However, this is still 10 years away. Even with extending the lives of Los Angeles-class SSNs, the Navy does not reach its desired attack submarine count until after 2048. Stopping the bleeding is not sufficient to reach 355 in less than a few decades,if the Navy needs to find more hulls in the next few years.

The Navy also could draw upon a limited quantity of warships in Naval Inactive Ship Maintenance Facilities (NISMF) including two aircraft carriers, two cruisers, two destroyers, a score of frigates, amphibious assault ships, and auxiliaries. Appendix 6 of the Navy report to Congress on shipbuilding notes 66 battle force ships being retired, dismantled, or sunk in the next five years. Reactivating those ships would almost instantly reach the 355 vessel goal. A 355-ship fleet, therefore, might be quickly met by delaying decommissioning and returning old warships to active duty

There is a significant downside to both extending the life of existing ships and returning old ships to service. First, there is the upfront cost of nuclear refueling and updating combat systems. Some cost savings could be made, for instance not using the catapults or arresting gear of the old carriers, making them STOVL carriers for helicopters, Ospreys, and F-35Bs (and saving significant manning and maintenance costs) or not updating the combat systems of the Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates and only using them for low-end counter-piracy or counter-narcotics missions. However, this would severely limit the combat capabilities of the ships to the battle force. They may be able to handle a low end mission and free more expensive assets for higher-threat theaters, but they would not be suitable for great power conflict. Upgrading them with modern combat systems would further increase their cost. Additionally, these old vessels were decommissioned for a reason. Taking old vessels back into service introduces assets that are less capable in modern warfare due to limited growth margins and worn out hulls, and adds significant maintenance costs to stretch their service for a few more years. Long term, this seems far less bang for the buck than procuring new, modern combatants with growth margins for emerging technology. It also violates the planning assumption that the Navy’s new hulls will need growth room for emerging technology to field new weapons and systems.

Building Smarter, Better and Faster

The Navy currently receives new warships from five large and two smaller private shipyards. The shipbuilding industry is not at capacity in the U.S. To achieve a 355-ship in a decade would require almost doubling new ship production.1 Additionally, buying more warships in a smaller interval of time drives down unit cost. The Congressional Research Service (CRS) estimated 10 percent savings by doubling the production rate of combatants.2 The same report also estimated 5-10 percent savings by using multiyear procurement. By energizing the U.S. shipbuilding industry, the 355 battle force ship count can be achieved sooner.

However, U.S. shipbuilding can only achieve a 355-ship Navy slowly. Upon funding, it takes two years for long lead time components for a SSN to be produced, and five to six years for construction. Additional workers and production space would be needed before the five to six year construction phase began. Even with immediate funding, therefore, a decade might elapse before additional warships and specifically SSNs could join the fleet.

The Government Accountability Office 2018 report on Navy Shipbuilding does not give much room for optimism on meeting shipbuilding time or costs. It notes “construction during the last 10 years have often not achieved their cost, schedule, quality, and performance goals” and that the Navy has spent more on shipbuilding but has fifty fewer ships in the inventory than was planned in its 2007 shipbuilding plan.

Another consideration is that building more of existing designs does not allow margins for growth. The DDG-51 Flight III design does not have the growth margin or electrical generation to support projected future weapons, nor crew reductions. Procuring more DDG-51s at an accelerated rate provides a short-term advantage, but leaves the Navy with a large number of hulls that consume manpower and can’t adapt efficiently as new systems are developed. Designing a new combatant takes years, and this will delay the date when the Navy can achieve a 355-ship force. Simply building existing or projected future designs faster does not offer much hope of meeting a 355-ship battle force quickly.

Another consideration is the boom and bust effect of sudden surges in shipbuilding. Even if a 355-ship Navy could be built in three to five years, what would befall the warship industry in the following years? Once the goal was reached, unless there was a new, higher goal set, shipyards would have to massively trim the workforces they hired to support a surge in construction. A stable growth plan is more economical and sustainable than one based on sudden surges and decelerations. It would also be more politically palatable to the Congress that authorized it.

Increasing the Firepower of What We Have

If ships cannot be built or brought back into service in a timely or economical way, could there be a way to increase the fleets combat ability until a 355 ship force is achieved? This is “breaking the mold” of the first assumption – that a 355-ship navy is necessary. Can a more powerful force of what we have suffice in the interim until a true 355-ship fleet can be achieved? 

The SSGN conversion of four SSBNs gave the Navy four stealthy, high-capacity, long-range, strike platforms. Each can be equipped with up to 154 cruise missiles and other payloads, more than a  cruiser, and offers far more offensive capability when one considers that many of the cruiser’s tubes are filled with defensive weaponry. What if the Navy converted the remaining 14 Ohios? This would provide an 18 percent increase in missile tubes (or firepower) available to the  battle force, when the 355 battle force count goal is a 20 percent increase in hulls. This seems to close the capability gap, for strike anyway, with what is available. The question is, would 18 Ohio SSGNs roaming the oceans provide a greater conventional deterrent, and an effective platform in worst case A2AD environments than more of other ships? For high-end warfare and strike, likely yes. But there are many missions a submarine does not do well, like air and ballistic missile defense, presence, and maritime interdiction. The SSGNs would also be a stop gap since they are aging out. To replace the Ohio SSGNs as they age out, the new Columbia-class SSBN could be repurposed as SSGN as well.

This would dramatically alter U.S. nuclear posture by removing the SSBN leg of the triad. However, this could be mitigated to an extent by the already announced plan to put nuclear-tipped Tomahawks back on U.S. submarines. As hypersonic or smaller intermediate range ballistic missiles became available, nuclear armed versions of these weapons on all the SSGN would provide a survivable nuclear response to underpin US deterrence. The Navy could also consider spreading nuclear Tomahawks or successor systems across more than just the submarine fleet. Instead of a few, high capacity SSBNs, the naval leg of the triad would become a dispersed force of ships and subs with a few weapons each, much as it was during the Cold War.

While far less survivable than a submarine, missile tubes could also be added to existing combat logistics force ships or even amphibious assault ships. The San Antonio-class LPD was originally designed with a 16-cell Mk 41 VLS forward. The Navy has considered back fitting it. However useful, the entire fleet of LPDs outfitted with VLS would yield fewer missiles than two SSGNs, and be less survivable. Another concept would be to take the San Antonio follow on and build them as missile ships with large radars and extensive VLS capability. Huntington Ingalls has produced a model of this concept, with twice the missile firepower of a U.S. cruiser. This would allow the Navy to close the firepower gap between a 355-ship Navy and now with fewer than 355 ships.

While these ideas do not produce a 355-battle force ship fleet any sooner, they do produce a fleet that is more survivable, with more firepower, sooner, than the official ship building plans call for. The cost is shifting and ceding some capability in nuclear deterrence and amphibious lift. Each of these would be controversial alone. Even together, they may be insufficient should the U.S. feel it needs a 355 battle force ship equivalent sooner rather than later.

Change in Deployment Methodology/Theater Specific Ships

While not directly increasing the battle force ship count, changing Navy deployment methodology could allow the force to be more capable as the size grows. This methodology is similar to the report published by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments as part of the Navy’s fleet architecture study. This report suggested the Navy be divided into two forces. First was a deterrence force, sub-divided among COCOMs, with the capacity to provide prompt, high capacity fires to punish an adversary should their existence fail to deter them. These ships would be tasked to support a particular COCOM rather than CONUS-based forces rotating between them. In low-threat SOUTHCOM, LCS and reactivated Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates, Coast Guard, or newly designed ships could focus on low-end missions and free up high end warships for other theaters. In CENTCOM, the ships assigned would focus on FAC/FIAC threats and air and missile defense. Ships assigned to PACOM or EUCOM would focus on high end missions. Ships could be built, manned, and trained around these priorities, in contrast to current operations where ships focus on all warfare areas and multiple AORs, risking becoming jacks of all trades but masters of none. While this may have been adequate during a low naval threat period, with the return of great power competition, specialization may be needed again. The SSGN conversions in particular might be outstanding vessels for the deterrence force in EUCOM and PACOM. Difficult to detect and counter, and with two or three perhaps on station at any time able to bring high capacity fires against an adversary’s aggression, the could depart the theater to reload and join the maneuver force.

Theater-specific ships could also be homeported in their AOR, reducing transit time and acting as a force multiplier. CRS estimated it takes 42 additional warships to keep eight additional ones on station in the Mediterranean if home ported in CONUS.3 If homeported in the Mediterranean, only 14 warships would be required. This could reduce the need for a 355-ship force, or allow those 28 warships to be tasked to other missions.

The second part of the fleet would be a maneuver force consisting of a multiple carrier strike groups and larger amphibious vessels that would relieve and replace the deterrence force and provide sustained combat power. By keeping the multi-carrier maneuver force together and away from the immediate area of crisis, it could conduct more high-end training and not be at risk in the initial stage of conflict. This would also mesh with the enduring Mahanian desire to keep a large portion of the fleet concentrated and surge capable. This contrasts with the current deployment methodology where ships frequently shift COCOM and tasking, and carriers don’t consistently operate together as they may have to in wartime to provide 24/7 effects and protection.

All of these ideas, deterrence/maneuver force, theater-specific ships, or greatly increasing overseas homeporting, breaks the mold of U.S. deployments and acquisition. However, they fail to increase the battle force ship count. They simply hold the dream of making the existing ships more efficient, available, or capable for specific missions.

Change in Battle Force Ship Definition

Another idea would be to change SECNAVINST 5030.8C, specifically enclosures (1) and (2) to assign more vessels from the category of Auxiliary to Combatant. The combatant category, which counts toward the 355-ship goal, already includes afloat forward staging bases, cargo and ammunition vessels, expeditionary sea bases, fast transports, fleet tugs, surveillance ships, and towing and salvage vessels. Adding in oceanographic research vessels and survey ships (both similar to surveillance ships), transport oilers and aviation logistics support (both similar to combat logistics ships) and high speed transports (very similar to expeditionary fast transports) could immediately add vessels to the battle force ship count with the stroke of a pen.

Doing this, while breaking the mold in the definition of a battle force ship, seems to be going against the spirit and intent of Congressional policy and U.S. Navy desire to increase force strength. While it could be argued some of the ships listed as auxiliaries provide very similar support to ships listed as “Fleet Support” or “Expeditionary Support,” reclassifying is simply smoke and mirrors while not increasing capability. Even if weapon systems were added to these platforms to make them more plausible as “battle force ships” the increase in Navy power and capability would be far less than battle force ships as listed under current definitions.

CDR Patton is deputy chairman for the U.S. Naval War College’s Strategic and Operational Research (SORD) Department. SORD produces innovative strategic research and analysis for the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, and the broader national security community.  CDR Patton was commissioned in 1995 from Tufts University NROTC, with degrees in history and political science and has served four tours conducting airborne nuclear command and control missions aboard the US Navy E-6B Mercury aircraft, and two tours as Tactical Action Officer (TAO) and Combat Direction Center Officer (CDCO) aboard the carriers USS KITTY HAWK and USS NIMITZ. 

The opinions and ideas above do not necessarily represent those of the Department of Defense, U.S. Navy, or the Naval War College. The ideas expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the principal author either. They were drawn from the Breaking the Mold II workshop held at the U.S. Naval War College with invited participants from military, industry, government and academic institutions. The workshop was held under the Chatham House Rule, so these ideas will not be attributed to their originator. Some ideas were specific enough that they are not included here because the idea itself might identify the originator and violate the Chatham House rule.


1. Congressional Budget Office “Costs of Building a 355-Ship Navy”, April 2017 pg.9

2. Ronald O’Rourke, “Options and Considerations for Achieving a 355-Ship Navy” July 25, 2017. Pg. 3

3. Ronald O’Rourke, “Options and Considerations for Achieving a 355-Ship Navy” July 25, 2017. Pg. 11

Featured Image: DARDANELLES STRAIT (Jan. 19, 2019) The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Donald Cook (DDG 75) transits the Dardanelles Strait, en route to the Black Sea, Jan. 19, 2019. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Ford Williams/Released) 190119-N-JI086-050

Chinese Shipbuilding and Seapower: Full Steam Ahead, Destination Uncharted

By Andrew S. Erickson

In recent years, China has been building ships rapidly across the waterfront. Chinese sources liken this to “dumping dumplings into soup broth.” Now, Beijing is really getting its ships together in both quantity and quality. The world’s largest commercial shipbuilder, it also constructs increasingly sophisticated models of all types of naval ships and weapons systems. What made this possible, and what does it mean?

History and Drivers

China’s shipbuilding industry enjoyed early and inherent advantages that its aircraft industry, for example, notably lacked. Unlike most other sectors, its infrastructure could not be physically relocated far inland as part of Mao’s disastrously inefficient Third Front campaign. When Deng began reforms at the end of the 1970s, he prioritized shipbuilding to support the shipping industry, which helped carry foreign trade, underwriting several decades of rapid growth that has changed China, the United States, and the world significantly.

In 1982, China State Shipbuilding Corporation was formed from the Sixth Ministry of Machine Building. That same year, the Middle Kingdom made its first delivery to the international ship market. Abundant cheap labor and domestic demand buoyed Chinese shipwrights despite a ruthlessly competitive international market.

Shipbuilding’s commercial dual-use nature has long facilitated transfer and absorption of much foreign technology, standards, and design and production techniques. China’s shipbuilding industry has leapfrogged key steps, focusing less on research and more on development, thereby saving time and resources and enjoying the most rapid growth in modern history.

China’s current naval buildout dates to the mid-1990s, catalyzed and accelerated in part by a series of events that impressed its leaders with their inability to counter American military dominance. These include Operation Desert Storm in 1991, the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1995-96, and the Belgrade Embassy Bombing in 1999.

Fleet Modernization

Ships are the physical embodiment of naval strategy—the most essential element through which a nation pursues its goals at sea. China has parlayed the world’s second-largest economy and second-largest defense budget into the world’s largest ongoing comprehensive naval buildup, which has already yielded the world’s largest navy by number of ships. It is making big waves, ever-farther from its shores.

After shrinking to replace many obsolescent vessels with fewer but more modern vessels in the 1990s and 2000s, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is now improving in both numbers and sophistication. As China’s maritime strategy has evolved, so have PLAN requirements. In response to this major growth in perceived needs, the PLAN has taken on more warfare areas, with significant improvements across the board. In the 1990s, the PLAN did not have significant strike or air defense capabilities; now it does. To meet high-end, multirole requirements—such as area and point defense in layers—with more missions and greater capabilities, PLAN vessels have grown more sophisticated, and generally expanded. The larger vessels of China’s navy increasingly resemble those of its American counterpart.

Shipbuilding Strengths

Regarding Chinese shipbuilding advantages, it is difficult to obtain specific data. Numbers related to budgeting and process efficiency in China’s relatively opaque defense industry unfortunately remain very difficult to investigate precisely using open sources. The official statistics Beijing releases still do not even include a reliable breakdown for China’s service budgets—such as that of the PLAN—within the overall official PLA budget (itself highly controversial). Because of the lack of precise information available, estimating Chinese ship production expenses logically involves making assumptions about relative costs in comparison to those known for other countries—not an exact science.

Still, the larger dynamics are clear. China has the world’s largest shipbuilding infrastructure, and its development enjoys top-level leadership support, starting with Xi Jinping himself. Commercial production is price-capped in part by China’s relatively stable business and vendor base. It helps subsidize military production, an option closed to the United States given its paucity of commercial shipbuilding. Chinese shipbuilding is greatly facilitated by an unparalleled organizational structure for collecting and disseminating technology, and integrating it into development and production processes at an industrial scale. Moving forward, an important variable is the extent to which China can use its familiar approach of moving up the value chain and parlaying exceptional cost-competitiveness into exceptional quantity at sufficient quality.

China’s effort to exploit civil-military synergies offers both opportunities and challenges. This was vigorously debated by the contributors to the Naval War College China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI)’s Naval Institute Press volume on Chinese Naval Shipbuilding. “Not a good mix operationally—colocation and coproduction are challenging if not counterproductive” was one of the more pointed critiques. Potential civil-military incompatibilities cited include culture, security, standards, design, engineering, propulsion, construction, and timescales.

Nevertheless, dual-use construction is undeniably emphasized in many authoritative Chinese industry policies and publications, and also in the form of a central commission for integrated military and civilian development headed by none other than Xi himself. There is certainly some intermingling in practice, with the greatest manifestation visible in shipyard infrastructure. High-tech, high-value-added, and high reliability commercial shipbuilding—for example, of liquid natural gas (LNG) and liquid propane gas (LPG) tankers, very large crude carriers (VLCCs), high-capacity container ships carrying more than 10,000 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU), and even cruise ships—can be directly relevant to warship production in a way that building simple ships like bulk carriers is not.

Beijing’s prioritized military sector generally enjoys better funding, infrastructure, and human capital in the form of advanced personnel—such as engineers with long-term experience, as opposed to rapid turnover. The proof is in the pudding: the PLAN is “not receiving junk” from China’s shipbuilding industry but rather increasingly sophisticated, capable vessels. Its growing satisfaction with them is indicated in part by longer production runs of fewer classes.

A more specific question remains: what limitations on high-end capabilities plague Chinese-produced warships? For now, China faces substantial difficulties in fielding the largest, most sophisticated surface combatants and submarines, as well as remaining weaknesses in propulsion and electronics. These all involve complex systems-of-systems in which China’s preferred second-mover piecemeal integration of foreign and domestic technologies cannot offer a “good enough” result. China’s aircraft carrier program offers a prime example.

Deck Aviation Challenges

With regard to aircraft carrier development, China has come a long way but has still has further to go. The appeal is clear: these apex predators of the sea are also the most modularized naval system, one of the few ships that are relatively easy to upgrade over a considerable lifespan. But given difficulties inherent in improving marine and aviation propulsion, power, and launch technologies, an evolutionary “crawl, walk, run” trajectory seems likely for China’s aircraft carrier program.

This remains very much a work in progress: the PLAN is still “crawling” and not even “walking” yet. China has already shown that it can build decent carrier hulls. But deck aviation platforms are primarily a conveyance for aircraft-delivered payloads. And there is “no such thing as a free launch.” Payload delivery is essential to a fleet’s performance; so too is having infrastructure sufficient to support and sustain it. China’s first carrier, Liaoning, is designed for air defense, not strike. It offers a very modest extension of air defense: getting a Flanker-type aircraft like the J-15 beyond its unrefueled range from a land-based airfield.

The PLAN faces formidable challenges in such areas as electronics, maritime monitoring, and command; control; communications; computers; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR). All are often underappreciated due to their subtlety and ubiquity of employment, but are nonetheless essential for robust deck aviation operations. They may be less amenable to China’s preferred approach of copying and emulation than are simpler structural systems. Chinese personnel are improving markedly in their training, but need to become still more proficient in the hard-to-steal “tribal knowledge” of coordinating operations and using equipment, including shipboard electronics.

China’s first aircraft carrier Liaoning is under restoration in a shipyard in Dalian. (AP Photo)

With far greater launching power than Liaoning’s ski jump, catapults will enable larger aircraft and payloads, delivering the PLAN to deck aviation’s “walking” stage. Deploying heavier airborne early warning aircraft will improve situational awareness. “Running,” as China perceives it, would require a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier with an electromagnetic launch system—the latter of which the United States is still struggling to perfect.

Carrier Group Assembly

China is gradually strengthening its ability to project significant power into distant waters by increasingly fielding the components of an aircraft carrier group. Sustaining a carrier group at sea requires replenishment vessels. Protecting a carrier group requires surface combatants with robust air defenses and offensive missiles as well as nuclear-powered submarines with potent anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs).

To improve at-sea replenishment, China is currently building the Type 901 integrated supply ship, which can furnish fuel, food, and some spare parts. It remains limited in ability to transfer ordnance, its biggest difference from the U.S. Supply class. It is already more than adequate for furnishing air-to-air missiles for Liaoning. It could be refitted with more dry transfer stations to increase ordnance transfer capability—a useful indicator to watch for, which would suggest intent to emulate the United States in long-distance power projection.

As for protection and coordination, the Type 055 cruiser, if it has the command and control facilities described in open sources, will be the centerpiece of future Chinese carrier groups—able to organize other ships somewhat like a U.S. Aegis cruiser does. With 112 vertical launch cells (VLS), this large multi-mission vessel has more than double the missile capacity of any previous PLAN surface combatant. Its VLS loadouts of HHQ-9 surface-to-air missiles suggest great capacity for area air defense, its loadouts of YJ-18 ASCMs offer a significant anti-surface warfare capability, its loadouts of CJ-10 land-attack cruise missiles suggest a nascent potential for projecting power ashore, and its Yu-8 rocket-assisted torpedoes offer an antisubmarine warfare (ASW) capability.

China launches two Type 055 guided-missile surface warships at a shipyard in Dalian, Liaoning province. (Liu Debin for China Daily)

Most navies with aircraft carriers do not protect them with robust submarines, but if China is to approach the American gold standard that it so clearly admires, and to which it apparently aspires, it will have to improve its nuclear-powered submarines, which are needed to allow for a full range of long-distance undersea operations. Even with a towed sonar array, China’s 093A nuclear-powered attack submarine remains at a significant disadvantage in being able to detect, and if necessary, attack enemy submarines while remaining undetected itself. It is still primarily an anti-surface ship platform with torpedo-tube-fireable YJ-18 ASCMs and a relatively noisy reactor, particularly in the secondary loop. Major work remains for China to project distant undersea power.

Near Seas Operational Scenarios

Closer to China’s shores, there is limited value for Chinese carrier operations, given their relative vulnerability and the potential for a highly-contested environment. But China’s shipbuilding industry has already produced a fleet of several hundred increasingly advanced warships capable of “flooding the zone” along the contested East Asian littoral, including increasingly large amphibious vessels well-suited to landing on disputed features, if they can be protected sufficiently. This is also where China’s large, conventionally-powered submarine fleet can be particularly deadly. When several hundred easy-and-cheap-to-build ships from China’s coast guard and its most advanced maritime militia units are factored in, Beijing’s numerical preponderance becomes formidable for the “home game” scenarios it cares about most. And that does not even include the land-based “anti-navy” of aircraft and missiles that backstops them. In this way, Beijing is already able to pose a formidable military-maritime challenge to the regional interests and security of the United States and its East Asian allies and partners.

Trends and Implications

China’s naval buildup is only part of an extraordinary maritime transformationmodern history’s sole example of a land power becoming a hybrid land-sea power and sustaining such an exceptional status. Underwriting this transition are a vast network of ports, shipping lines and financial systems, and—of course—increasingly advanced ships. All told, this raises the rare prospect of a top-tier non-Western sea power in peacetime, one of the few instances to occur since the Ming Dynasty developed cutting-edge nautical technologies and briefly projected unrivaled maritime power across the Indian Ocean. Now, for the first time in six centuries, commercial sea power development has flowed away from the Euro-Atlantic shipyards of the West, back toward an Asian land power that is going seaward to stay. Military sea power may be poised to follow.

Beijing is pursuing a requirements-based approach:

The PLAN’s transition from a “Near Seas” to a “Near and Far Seas” navy is dispersing its fleet over greater distances, making it more difficult to protect and support, as well as requiring enhanced logistics and facilities access.

Some of the most important and challenging requirements include:

  • long endurance propulsion—especially nuclear power, the ultimate “gold standard
  • area air defenses for surface combatants and emerging carrier groups
  • land-attack and strike warfare, including from deck aviation assets
  • ASW
  • acoustic quieting for submarines, to help them both survive being targeted in deeper blue-water environments, and search more effectively without limitation by self-generated noise
  • and, finally, broad-coverage C4ISR

China has started to pursue all these objectives, but it will take years before it fully accomplishes them.

 Already, however, Chinese ship-design and shipbuilding advances are increasing the PLAN’s ability to contest sea control in a widening arc of the Western Pacific. China is producing two to three surface combatants for every one the United States produces. If current trends continue, China will be able to deploy a combat fleet that in overall order of battle (meaning, hardware-specific terms) is quantitatively larger and qualitatively on par with that of the U.S. Navy by 2030.

Whether China can stay on this trajectory, given looming maintenance costs and downside risks to its economy as it faces an S-curved growth slowdown, is another question. It is a question that is linked to many other uncertainties about China’s future. China under Xi is becoming increasingly statist and militarized, thereby suggesting that naval shipbuilding will not suffer for lack of resources even as debt continues to spiral upward in state-owned enterprises. China’s very capable shipbuilding industry is closing remaining gaps with its Japanese and Korean rivals, even as Korean shipbuilders suffer unprofitability and rapidly-declining order books. However, China faces continued challenges in overcapacity and an aging workforce.

Moreover, a major mid-life maintenance bill for the overhauls of all new PLAN vessels will start coming due in the next 5-10 years. This will demand considerable resources—in money and shipyard space, with production and maintenance in potential competition. By then, China’s aging society may reorient resource allocation by stimulating “guns vs. butter,” and even “guns vs. canes” debates. The true long-term cost of sustaining top-tier sea power tends to eventually outpace economic growth by a substantial margin. For all its rapid rise at sea thus far, China is unlikely to avoid such challenging currents.

Dr. Andrew S. Erickson is a Professor of Strategy in the China Maritime Studies Institute and the recipient of the inaugural Civilian Faculty Research Excellence Award at the Naval War College. He serves on the Naval War College Review’s Editorial Board and is an Associate in Research at Harvard University’s John King Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies. In 2013, while deployed in the Pacific as a Regional Security Education Program scholar aboard USS Nimitz, he delivered twenty-five hours of presentations. Erickson is the author of Chinese Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile Development (Jamestown Foundation/Brookings Institution Press, 2013). He received his Ph.D. from Princeton University. Erickson blogs at www.andrewerickson.com. The views expressed here are his alone and do not represent the policies or estimates of the U.S. Navy or any other organization of the U.S. government.

This article elaborates on a podcast in which CSIS scholar Bonnie Glaser interviewed Dr. Erickson as part of the ChinaPower Project that she directs there.

Featured Image: China’s first domestically made aircraft carrier, the Shandong, pictured during construction in Dalian in December 2016. (Kyodo)

Why Peacetime Naval Buildups are Difficult

By Steven Wills


There has been much gnashing of teeth and complaint in response to the U.S. Navy’s slow build toward a goal of 355 ships. Peacetime naval buildups by free societies have never been simple undertakings. Such governments usually retire large numbers of warships in search of “peace dividends,” from which recovery is often a challenge. If ill-timed, they can result in large numbers of warships that are out of date before they complete even a decade of service, or need to be retired before the end of the service lives to cut costs. Getting to the right numbers of ships, especially in a period of tight finance may mean holding onto old ships well past their expected service life. Past examples of peacetime buildups by the British Royal Navy and U.S. Navy suggest that while getting to larger numbers of ships is possible, the costs can be prohibitive; especially in an environment of rapid, technological advancement.

British Royal Navy Buildups

Representative governments have always been quick to reduce expensive naval armaments in peacetime. The British Royal Navy (RN) reduced its force structure in only modest terms in the wake of the victorious French and Indian War. End strength of the RN dropped from 365 commissioned warships of all types in 1763 at the conclusion of those hostilities to 270 vessels at the start of the American Revolution in 1775.1 While still formidable, British lawmakers questioned whether this force that still boasted over 130 “ships of the line” of 50 guns and greater was capable of dealing with the American rebellion. A debate in the House of Commons from 13 February 1775 featured one speaker who stated “Our present naval force was by no means adequate to our professed intentions; for the squadron that we designed for America would answer no purpose of stopping their commerce; or if we did send a sufficient one, our own coasts, comparatively speaking, must be left totally defenseless.”2 The speaker went on to state that Britain’s perpetual enemy France might dispatch 75 or more ships of the line to menace English seacoast communities if the bulk of the available RN went to the Americas to reduce colonial commerce.

The British increased their fleet to 478 warships by 1783, but at great cost with some estimates suggesting an increase from a low of £1,526,357 in 1765 to £8,063,206 in 1782, and where public net debt rose to over 150 percent of GDP. Peacetime naval buildups are not new, and are almost costly affairs. Britain was perhaps lucky in that the increase in the size and capability of the RN in response to the American Revolution served to also prepare it for a renewed period of war with France. The creation of a state bank (The Bank of England) in 1694, and growing public confidence in the solvency of the British Crown allowed Parliament to “Raise immense sums on short notice and at relatively low rates of interest.”3 Unlike its Continental rivals the British also did not have to spend large sums on ground forces to defend vulnerable land borders. This combination of factors allowed for a fairly quick transition from “rusty trident” in the early 1770s to the sharp instrument that soundly defeated the navies of Denmark, Spain, and France during the Napoleonic wars.

A lack of such an immediate conflict can serve to create whole generations of warships that are out of date before they ever fire a shot in anger. The Royal Navy again reached such a low point in the late 1880s as it struggled to deal with a resurgent France and a rising Russian naval threat that imperiled both the British isles and multiple, overseas British possessions such as the imperial “crown jewel” of India. The Industrial Revolution was also in full swing with new grades of steel armor and improved steam engines entering service as often as new smart devices and software builds do today. British warship construction in the previous two decades had been slow to keep up with technical advances and many newspapers suggested the Navy was in poor condition to take on France and Russia. A series of articles in September 1884 in the Pall Mall Gazette by the muckraking journalist W.T. Steed described the Royal Navy as unready for war against Russia and France based on shrinking budgets, a lack of protection for Britain’s global naval logistics hubs, and an antiquated fleet of small craft for the defense of the British Isles.4

The British response to these conditions was the Naval Defence Act of 1889; a £21,500,000, 5-year program designed to produce 10 battleships, 42 cruisers, and 18 torpedo gunboats.5 According to naval historian Jon Tetsuro Sumida, the program was a resounding success in terms of finance and construction in that most of the program was completed on schedule with little cost overrun. The 1889 program also marked the beginning of an official “two power standard,” where Britain officially declared that its sum of first class fighting vessels (namely battleships) would be superior to the combined fleets of the next two naval powers (France and Russia). While a firm declaration of the importance of British seapower, it was at best a political measure rather than an accurate estimation of British naval strength. Naval historian Nicholas Lambert asserts that many uniformed senior Royal Navy officers believed the two-power standard was not enough and that it best represented a minimum level of strength.6 Britain’s primary political parties in the late 19th century (Conservative and Liberal parties,) however accepted the two power standard as a benchmark.

This decision would have significant consequences in the following decade as Britain’s burgeoning economic growth slowed and with it the funding for a larger fleet. Political scientist Aaron Friedberg asserted that British naval spending in the 1890s was made by possible by three factors. A general increase in national prosperity and with it consumer spending, especially on tea, tobacco, and beer, provided additional tax revenue. The British income and estate (death) taxes also provided generous sources of spending for both defense and for a rising tide of British social spending.7 Unfortunately, British economic growth slowed dramatically over the last quarter of the 19th century as the economic output of Germany and the United States dramatically increased.8 This process of British relative decline served to offset its naval superiority as the cost of replacement battleships dramatically increased over the same period. The pioneering battleship (then known as an ironclad) HMS Devastation cost £360,000 in 1869, but by 1898 the battleship HMS Implacable was £1,100,000.9 These increasing costs would make replacement of the existing foundation of British naval supremacy a significant challenge.

To this financial setback was added the rising costs of new technology; first in the form of new armor, weapons, and steam-powered equipment, but later by the introduction of asymmetric warfare systems such as the side armored cruiser. This ship, with long range, medium-sized weapons and armor sufficient to withstand the shells of the British cruisers traditionally assigned to defend imperial trade routes, represented a direct threat to British finance from trade and key sea lines of communication to overseas possessions like India.10 The French Navy also financed submarine and torpedo development as additional countermeasures to traditional British maritime superiority.11 The very expensive ships of the Naval Defence Act of 1889 were, by contrast, too slow and short-ranged to overtake and destroy armored cruisers, despite being better armed. They were also poorly protected against the torpedo as employed by the submarine and the surface torpedo boat. Improvements in armor manufacture, especially the Krupp steel process that resulted in much lighter yet stronger protective plates, enabled much more armor to be used over a wider area of even cruiser-sized ships. This gave the armored cruiser class its edge over earlier ships that could not support side armor. The new armor was less expensive than past versions, but that improvement was lost in the rush of other expensive steam propulsion and gun systems that combined to double the cost of a modern battleship over the period from 1895 to 1905.12 In fact, technological advancements ensured that the ships from the Naval Defence Act of 1889, notably the eight Royal Sovereign class battleships that were state of the art in 18991, had at best 15 year effective service lives before being out of date.13

HMS Royal Sovereign in 1913. (Wikimedia Commons)

Finally, the international situation and unexpected war in South Africa added to the financial problems of relative decline and rapid technological advancement. The Second Anglo Boer War of 1899 to 1902 put further strain on British finance and with it plans to renew naval supremacy. While early estimates by the British government suggested that costs for the South African conflict might be maintained below £21 million, army-related spending rose quickly in the first two years of the conflict from £21 million to £44.1 million and, and overall British government spending finally grew to a figure of £205 million during the last two years of the war.14 The British national debt also rose from £14 million in 1899-1900, and later to £53 million in 1901 and 1902.15 It was inevitable that these figures would affect Royal Navy expenditures. Over roughly this same period (1897 to 1904,) the Royal Navy expended £29.6 million on new battleships and £26.9 million pounds for the new armored cruisers. Such expenditures could not be sustained without a major increase in taxes which neither British political party would countenance. By 1902 it was clear to the British political establishment that some economy was desperately required and the new Prime Minister Arthur Balfour created the Committee of Imperial Defence to seek joint (Army/Navy) solutions to Britain’s global defense posture. The First Lord of the Admiralty (roughly the equivalent of the U.S. Secretary of the Navy,) Lord Selborne advised his flag officers to “Cease to say ‘this is the ideal plan and how do we get enough money to carry it out,’ to ‘Here is a sovereign (UK coin,) how much can we squeeze out of it that will really count for victory in a naval war?’”16

Ultimately, despite significant expenditure, the Naval Defence Act of 1889 failed to deter continued naval expansion of France and Russia, and also later Germany, Japan, and the United States.17 Rapid technological advancement quickly made the fleet of the 1890s obsolete in the next decade. Britain’s own relative decline and the expenditures for the Boer War further weakened the Royal Navy’s efforts to keep pace with advancing technology and the rising fleets of other nations. The end result was the ascent of the eponymous Admiral Sir John Fisher and his radical program of what today would be called “transformation” where the battlecruiser would replace the battleship and the armored cruiser for high seas combat, and littoral combatants such as destroyers and submarines would be responsible for the United Kingdom’s homeland defense. The Fisher regime, while innovative and fiscally responsible, is seen by some as the beginning of the end of British naval supremacy as Fisher’s program required major reductions in presence forces scattered around the empire in favor of the combat-capable force to defeat rising European competitors. This reduction in direct imperial influence and dependence on other powers, notably the United States and Japan to secure British interests in North America and the Western Pacific, was seen as perhaps the beginning of the end of the British Empire and with it the need for an expanded Royal Navy in its defense.18 This decline might be traced back to the Naval Defence Act of 1889 and a desire to build a significant peacetime fleet in specific numbers over those of opponents.

U.S. Naval Buildup Challenges

The final example of difficult peacetime buildup also deals with the political calculus of fleet size. The U.S. Navy’s 600 ship fleet goal of the 1980s had its origins, like that of the Royal Navy of the 1880s and 1890s, in an enemy’s (Soviet) increased fleet size, rising welfare state expenditures, and a distant land conflict (Vietnam) sapping of funds that might have been used for modernization. The United States Navy of 1970 was a Vietnam War-focused fleet in dire need of recapitalization and modernization. The incoming Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, Jr. set out to begin those processes, but at the cost of the retirement of significant numbers of ships; most of World War II vintage and diminished capability. The fleet had already undergone significant reductions during the tenure of Admiral Thomas Moorer as CNO, with the overall number of ships dropping from 932 to 731.19 Zumwalt had to impose further reductions in order to gather enough resources and potential crews for new construction. He later said:

“We were, on the average, technologically obsolescent. Our fleet was over 20 years of age, on the average. One of the things that impressed both Secretary Chafee and Secretary Laird in my preliminary meetings with them when, as it turns out, they were looking for who should be the next CNO, was that I said that given the budget limitations, we simply had to reduce the numbers of ships in order to begin the process of building new ships. We needed to reduce the expenditures for men and ships and start building ships.”20

Like Fisher in 1904, Zumwalt also needed to cut obsolescent ships before building new ones. While such processes delay growth and in fact result in reductions, they are necessary for subsequent fleet growth. Zumwalt worked hard to ensure existing, authorized classes like the Spruance-class destroyers were built and pushed to get what became the Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates added to the fleet, but mass retirements of old ships further reduced the fleet size.21 Overall numbers of ships decreased to 530 by 1980.22

PACIFIC OCEAN (Nov. 17, 2011) The decommissioned Spruance-class destroyer ex-Paul F. Foster (EDD 964) conducts a successful demonstration of shipboard alternative fuel use while underway in the Pacific Ocean on a 50-50 blend of an algae-derived, hydro-processed algal oil and petroleum F-76. Paul F. Foster has been reconfigured as the Self-Defense Test Ship to provide the Navy an at-sea, remotely controlled, engineering test and evaluation platform without the risk to personnel or operational assets. (U.S. Navy photo by Charlie Houser/Released)

The Presidency of Jimmy Carter was an especially dark period for the Navy with the former naval officer president content with an objective force of only 400 ships.23 Carter and his land warfare-focused subordinates such as Defense Secretary Harold Brown and Deputy Secretary of Defense for Policy Bob Komer sought significant reductions in naval expenditures through most of his administration.24

Studies for rebuilding U.S. Navy force structure began during the Ford Presidency and gained maturation during the Carter administration thanks to the efforts of Carter’s own Navy Secretary Graham Claytor, a World War II naval officer who opposed the Defense Department’s naval reductions. Claytor sponsored a study known as SeaPlan 2000 that recommended a 585 ship fleet that could be purchased and maintained with regular, four percent growth in the Navy’s budget; a figure then within accepted spending limits of the Navy.25 Like the British “Two Power Standard,” this figure was also a political measurement in that multiple studies on 400, 600, 900 and 1200 ship fleets had been undertaken with the 600 ship version seen as most economical and that it represented a minimum rather than an ideal force structure to meet the global Soviet naval threat.26 

Jimmy Carter was defeated by Ronald Reagan in 1980 and the new administration both adopted and altered elements of SeaPlan 2000. Led by Navy Secretary John F. Lehman Jr, a new 600-ship Navy (an easy round-up from 585) figure was introduced as the benchmark for U.S. Fleet strength. An aggressive building program was introduced to meet the 600 ship figure by the close of a hypothetical 2-term Reagan presidency. The 600 ship Navy was paired with a new Maritime Strategy that justified and detailed the fleet’s use in combat with the Soviet Navy as well as routine presence and other operations. Navy Secretary Lehman also stated that 600 ships was the minimum fleet size to support the 15 carrier battle groups needed to provide the geographic, peacetime naval presence.27 The whole package of fleet size, strategy, and employment was offered at the same four percent rate of growth.

The weak point of the 600-ship navy buildup, however, was its retention of older, steam-powered surface warships in significant numbers in order to bridge the gap between existing and future force structure while maintaining the 600 ship number goal. The navy of the period had ships propelled by steam, diesel, nuclear, and most recently gas turbine engines. Of these types, nuclear power supported a growing portion of the Navy’s carrier strength and a dozen guided missile cruisers built as carrier escorts. Diesel engines were auxiliaries on many ships and propelled a growing number of mid-sized amphibious warfare ships. Gas turbine engines had become the new choice of propulsion for combatant ships including the Spruance-class destroyers, Ticonderoga-class cruisers, and Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates. Steam power, however, still served the bulk of the existing surface combatant fleet, some of the aircraft carriers, and large number of auxiliary ships. Many of these ships were older units and they were not aging well; a condition that made their retention as part of the growing 600-ship force a challenge.

In terms of one warship category, guided missile destroyers (DDG,) the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated in 1985 that only five of 67 such ships in 1989 would be classed as “modern,” which the CBO defined as constructed after 1970.28 The most numerous frigate/guided missile frigate (FF and FFG) category was better, but still saw 65 of a possible 111 ships as pre-1970 construction in 1989.29 The vast bulk of these older units were steam-powered units, whose manpower and maintenance-intensive 1200 psi, 950 degree steam plants became more challenging to maintain as they aged. Numerous oil leaks and fires plagued these aging units over the course of the late 1970s and 1980s. While the steam cruisers received significant combat systems upgrades in the form of the New Threat Upgrade (NTU) system, only a few of the steam destroyers received such improvements and the steam-powered frigate classes remained largely unaltered with the exception of the addition of the close in weapon system (CIWS) for some.

The modernization and retention of the steam-powered surface combatant force, and many other steam powered navy warships became a moot point at the end of the Cold War in 1991. As early as 1989 when it became evident that the Soviet Union was in a period of decline, 16 frigates of the Garcia and Brooke class frigates and guided missile frigates were decommissioned as a cost-savings measure.30 The manpower cuts determined by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Colin Powell in the creation of the post-Cold War “Base Force” further accelerated the retirement of the personnel-heavy steam warship fleet. The 34 units of the Adams and Farragut-class destroyers followed into retirement in 1990 and 1991, and the upgraded steam cruisers of the Leahy and Belknap followed in the early 1990s.31 The numerous Knox-class frigates were also decommissioned by the mid 1990s, with an abortive attempt to retain some as reserve frigates ended in 1994.

In all, 114 steam-powered cruisers, destroyers, frigates were retired in the period 1989-1995. It is open to debate how long these ships could have been retained had the Cold War continued, but given their age and maximum thirty year service life, it is improbable that enough could have remained in commissioned long enough to be steadily replaced by newly constructed Arleigh Burke-class destroyers in the 1990s and 2000s.32


Peacetime naval buildups are difficult and face uncertain sustainability if the force structures they create are not soon called to active combat. Like the British in 1889 and the U.S. in the 1980s, the U.S. Navy is attempting a significant peacetime naval buildup without an immediate conflict on the horizon (unlike the U.S. “Two Ocean Navy” buildup of 1938 to 1940 when World War 2 was already underway.) Like the Royal Navy of the middle and late 18th century, it now finds that even modest reductions can inhibit low-end presence and limited war operations. The U.S. Navy may also discover that rapid technological advances in data processing, artificial intelligence, hypersonic and directed energy weapons can render much of any fleet additions obsolete less than 10-15 years into a 30-40 year life span. Open architecture systems and the modular weight, space, and connectivity of the unfairly maligned littoral combat ship (LCS) might allow that ship type to deploy capabilities yet unplanned or conceived when they were constructed. Such ships can also be constructed in larger numbers than their larger, much more technically complex cousins. It may still be difficult to maintain a fleet of any relevant size given these challenges.

The U.S. Navy has however taken some positive steps to increase fleet size and simplify the process of maintaining that fleet longer and at best cost. The Cold War-era classification of surface warships (cruiser, destroyer, frigate, patrol,) is giving way to one of large and small surface combatant (LSC and SSC.)33 Historically, a reduction in the number of individual classes by merger has been a good way to reduce costs. The British Royal Navy combined the predreadnought battleship and fast armored cruiser into first the battle cruiser and then the fast battleship. The introduction of open architecture combat systems and vertical launch capability for weapons has made the process of updating much easier than in the past. The Navy has requested that the new FFG(X) class have as much commonality with current ships as possible.34 More reductions in the acquisition and test and evaluation bureaucracy can help this process as well. The LCS, for example, must undergo another round of operational testing every time one of its mission modules gets a new piece of equipment. This sort of endless testing only delays programs and results in cost increases as do the additional layers of “oversight” added to an already over-burdened Navy.

Peacetime naval buildups in periods when war is not imminent are historically difficult, and no one should expect immediate results in the absence of large budget deficits. As history shows, sometimes a reduction in overall numbers of ships is required in order to build new construction necessary to grow the fleet. Solutions for managing such efforts include not reducing the fleet to a point where even a modest increase is difficult; avoiding the pitfalls of rapidly advancing technology that can make today’s force structure rapidly out of date, combining classes of ships into fewer types of ships with more commonality, and avoiding politically-driven fleet sizes that cannot be retained without herculean efforts. The U.S. Navy can increase in size and capability, but it won’t happen overnight in what remains a peacetime environment.

Steve Wills is a retired surface warfare officer and a PhD candidate in military history at Ohio University. His focus areas are modern U.S. naval and military reorganization efforts and British naval strategy and policy from 1889-1941. These views are his own.


1. Jack Coggins, Ships and Seaman of the American Revolution, Harrisburg, PA, Promontory Press, 1969, p. 22.

2. Ibid, p. 19.

N.A.M Rodger, Command of the Sea, A Naval History of Britain, 1649-1845, New York, Norton, 2004, p. 644.

3. Jon Tetsuro Sumida, In Defence of Naval Supremacy, Finance, Technology, and British Naval Policy, 1889-1914, Annpolis, Md; The Naval Institute Press, 1993, p. 5.

4. W.T. Steed, “The Responsibility for the Navy,” The Pall Mall Gazette, 30 September, 1884, electronic resource, https://attackingthedevil.co.uk/pmg/responsibility.php, last accessed, 01 March 2018.

5. Sumida, p. 13.

6. Nicholas Lambert, Sir John Fisher’s Naval Revolution, Columbia, SC, The University of South Carolina Press, 1999, pp. 20, 21.

7. Aaron Friedberg, The Weary Titan, Britain and the Experience of Relative Decline, 1895-1905, Princeton , NJ, Princeton University Press, 1988, p. 98.

8. Ibid, p. 81.

9. David K. Brown, Warrior to Dreadnought, Warship Design and Development 1860-1905, Barnsley, UK; Seaforth Publishing, 2010, p. 203.

10. Lambert, p. 25.

11. Ibid, p. 27.

12. Sumida, pp. 19, 20.

13. Lambert, p. 105.

14. Friedberg, p. 106.

15. Ibid.

16. Lambert, p. 36.

17. Friedberg, p. 153.

18. Ibid, pp. 201-205.

19. “U.S. Ship Force Levels; 1886-Present,” Washington D.C.: The U.S. Navy History and Heritage Command, electronic resource, https://www.history.navy.mil/research/histories/ship-histories/us-ship-force-levels.html#1965, last accessed 10 April 2018.

20. Alfred Goldberg and Maurice Matloff, “Oral History Interview with Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr,” Washington D.C,; The Defense Department Historical Office, 22 October, 1991, pp 11, 12.

21. Ibid, p. 16.

22. John Hattendorf, U.S. Navy Strategy in the 1970’s, Selected Documents, Newport, RI, The United States Naval War College Press, 2007, p. xiii.

23. John Hattendorf, The Evolution of the Maritime Strategy, 1977-1986,Newport, R.I.; The U.S. Naval War College Press, 2003, p. 9.

24. Edward C. Keefer, Harold Brown, Offsetting the Soviet Military Challenge 1977-1981, Washington D.C.; The Office of the Secretary of Defense Historical Office, 2017, pp. 233-239, 425.

25. John Hattendorf, U.S. Navy Strategy in the 1970’s, Selected Documents, Newport, RI, The United States Naval War College Press, 200, p. 121.

26. John Hattendorf, The Evolution of the Maritime Strategy, 1977-1986,Newport, R.I.; The U.S. Naval War College Press, 2003, pp. 10-13.

27. Ibid, p. 50.

28. “Future Budget Requirements for the 600 Ship Navy,” Washington DC, The Congressional Budget Office (CBO,) September 1985, p. 15.

29. Ibid, p. 16.

30. “Navy to Place 6 Frigates Based in S.D. in Mothballs,” The Los Angeles Times, 24 June 1988.

31. Kit and Carolyn Bonner, Warship Boneyards, Osceola, WI; MBI Publishing, 2001, pp. 115, 116.

32. “Future Budget Requirements for the 600 Ship Navy,” p. 56.

33. Ron O’Rourke, Navy Force Structure and Shipbuilding Plans; Background and issues for Congress, Washington D.C.; The Congressional Research Service (CRS,) 08 December 2017, p. 3.

34. Ron O’Rouke, “Navy Frigate (FFG[X]) Program: Background and Issues for Congress,“ Washington D.C.; The Congressional Research Service (CRS,) 08 December 2017, p. 4.

Featured Image: CVN 76 under construction (Wikimedia Commons)