The destroyers Kidd, Howard, and Shoup participate in a group sail as part of Tiger Cruise 2017 for the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group. (Photo by MC2 Ian Zagrocki) Just in case there was ever any doubt, the Navy really doesn’t want you to hold them to the 355 ship number it said it needed at the end of 2016.
Senior Navy leadership has made a cottage industry of down-playing its December 2016 assessment that attempted to match combatant commander demand with the kind of fleet size it might reasonably expect to build.
Since Jim Mattis took over as Defense Secretary in January, equivocation has been the order of the day when it comes to what size fleet the Navy is building towards in the era of President Trump.
And that continued Monday morning at Navy League’s annual maritime bonanza, Sea-Air-Space. In response to a question about priorities, the Navy top requirements officer told the crowd to focus less on the 355-ship number. When it comes to fleet lethality, its what’s on the inside that counts, Vice Adm. William Merz told the crowd.
“Capability is where we would really like to put most of our energy,” Merz, the deputy chief of naval operations for warfare systems, said. “That’s where we can return capability and make our fleet more lethal much more quickly than just building capacity. There is the capacity piece, the 355-ship Navy, that I’m sure you’re very familiar with.
“We caution everybody that 355 is a target,” he continued. “It’s much more important to focus on the sum of the parts to derive from it.” He said that fitting the right capabilities to operational plans and need areas was more important than actually hitting the target number of ships.
Merz is the latest in a long line of 355-ship soft-pedlars, a trend that has continued despite Congress making achieving a 355-ship Navy a matter of national policy as part of the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act. Merz told House lawmakers in March that the Navy was gearing up for a new force structure assessment that would inevitably revise the 355-ship number.
When Mattis was pressed last June about growing the fleet to 355 ships, he said the nation needed a larger fleet but that it was unlikely without three-to-five percent real growth in the defense budget annually. Mattis has made clear that restoring readiness in the force is his number one priority.
Navy Secretary Richard Spencer said in September that the Navy needs to grow, but that the service needed to take a hard look at what capabilities the fleet would need in 15 years. The Navy’s own 30-year shipbuilding plan released in February didn’t get to 355 ships at all, capping out at 342 ships in 2039.
The Navy’s public squirreliness on its own assessment of its needs have started to irk even its staunchest supporters on Capitol Hill.
In a hearing in March, Rep. Rob Wittman, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee’s Seapower subcommittee, said the Navy was missing the mark on its shipbuilding plans.