U.S. Navy Ponders An Ambitious Fleet Makeover Amid Tight Budget

Feb 10, 2020
Originally published on February 10, 2020 9:01 am
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President Trump's administration is expected to unveil a budget plan today. Under a deal with Congress last year, defense spending would rise only slightly, which leaves the United States Navy a little bit caught between a tight budget and a president who would like things to be a lot bigger. Jay Price of our member station WUNC reports.

JAY PRICE, BYLINE: The scene at the famous shipyard at Newport News, Va., was a naval classic.

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CAROLINE KENNEDY: I christen thee United States ship John F. Kennedy. May God bless the ship and all who sail in her.

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PRICE: A few months back, Caroline Kennedy christened the ship in honor of her late father. These kinds of ceremonies are becoming more frequent. After decades of decline, the Navy's fleet is on the rise. This year, it's expected to top 300 warships. And it's aiming for a much larger number.

THOMAS MODLY: The 355-ship goal, it's more than a goal. It's in the law. It was in the authorization bill several years ago and was a stated goal of the president when he ran for election in 2016.

PRICE: That's Thomas Modly, the acting secretary of the Navy. Warships can come with jaw-dropping price tags. The 1,100-foot-long, 100,000 ton Kennedy, for example, costs more than $13 billion. And for Modly, paying for a lot more ships is a challenge.

MODLY: That's what we're trying to figure out right now. But when you look at the size of the fleet right now or where it was four years ago, we were at 275 ships. So getting to a fleet of 355 is going to require a significantly higher top line. That's a 30% increase in the size of the fleet. But I don't think it's reasonable for us to ask for 30% more top line. It's just not enough money to go around in defense to be able to fund that.

PRICE: Modly says he's confident the Navy can get there but says it will have to get some additional funding and choose ships that cost less. However it decides to reach 355, there's one especially influential person who wants it to happen.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Our Navy is now the smallest it's been since, believe it or not, World War I. Don't worry - going to soon be the largest it's been.

PRICE: That was President Trump back in 2017 on his own visit to Newport News. The Navy's goal for fleet size had been more modest. Mark Cancian is with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

MARK CANCIAN: The Navy's previous target had been 308 ships. But after Trump won the election, they couldn't have a target that was below what the now-president-elect was recommending. So the Navy did a quick force structure analysis and came up with 355 ships.

PRICE: Cancian once led the Office of Management and Budget's division that focused on the defense budget and acquisitions. He says it's unclear exactly how large the fleet really should be.

CANCIAN: I think there's a strong argument that the Navy needs to be larger if the United States wants to execute the strategy that it has pursued since the late Obama administration and then into the Trump administration. That is, a global superpower that is engaged in Europe, in the Middle East and in the Pacific; also that is going to engage in a long-term competition with Russia and China. Doing those two things takes a large navy. Now, whether that needs to be 355 ships or not, there isn't a lot of analysis there.

PRICE: Modly, though, is focused on that 355 number.

MODLY: And that would mean integrating into that fleet some ships that cost less, require fewer people to man them and also help with our overall strategy of having distributed maritime operations with more ships out there in the fleet.

PRICE: He says the Navy can not only reach 355 but do it ahead of schedule and without even counting the drone ships the Navy is aggressively pursuing. For NPR News, I'm Jay Price. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.