Breaking Defense

The Surface Navy Should Design for Competition, Rethink Fleet Makeup

Senior Fellow and Director, Center for Defense Concepts and Technology
The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS McFaul participates in a multinational military exercise with NATO allies as part of the Gerald R. Ford Carrier Strike Group on October 5, 2022. (Kerri Kline via DVIDS)
The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS McFaul participates in a multinational military exercise with NATO allies as part of the Gerald R. Ford Carrier Strike Group on October 5, 2022. (Kerri Kline via DVIDS)

As top naval officials, industry titans and sailors of all stripes gather soon for the Surface Navy Association’s annual conference, the future of the surface fleet is sure to be top of mind. In this op-ed, Hudson Institute’s Bryan Clark argues that it’s time for the service to look hard at how to get the best bang for the surface fleet’s buck — and to change its acquisition plans.

The US Navy’s surface warriors should be proud of the fleet’s performance as they meet this week in Virginia for the annual Surface Navy Association symposium. Destroyers in the Red Sea defend Israel and commercial shipping against Houthi air attacks. Littoral Combat Ships steam alongside Philippine allies to protect fisheries from Chinese harassment and poaching. And the Bataan amphibious ready group patrols the Eastern Mediterranean to prevent escalation of Israel’s war with Hamas. American sea power is on display literally around the world.

But in the background, the Navy’s budget tells a different story. In its last shipbuilding plan, the Navy described plans to shrink the surface fleet over the next decade as cruisers (CG), dock landing ships (LSD), and minesweepers age out and the LCS fleet is reduced to 21 hulls from an original 35. Ship construction, consisting of two destroyers (DDG) and up to two frigates (FFG) per year, will not be enough to stem the losses. And with 13 surface ships planned for retirement next year, stress on the fleet will only grow.

Navy leaders need to reassess their future plans by getting real about the operational and budgetary pressures that lie ahead and embracing the surface fleet’s recent successes as a tool for deterrence and diplomacy. A good start would be rethinking how the Navy pursues its acquisition of DDG(X).

Getting Real About Resources

The surface fleet is shrinking, which the Navy intends to arrest in the mid-2030s through continued DDG and FFG production combined with a pause in retirements. But this plan faces multiple challenges.

The first is construction costs. Starting in 2032, the Navy wants to buy the new DDG(X), estimated to cost about $3.3 billion compared to $2.1 billion for today’s Arleigh Burkes. Navy leaders argue the 40 percent larger DDG(X) is needed to carry the lasers, long-range hypersonic missiles, and improved sensors needed to fight China.

To build DDG(X), the Navy will need to grow its surface combatant spending from about $6 billion today to about $9 billion in the 2030s. The end of Columbia ballistic missile submarine procurement in 2035 could free up these dollars, but the new SSN(X) attack submarine, estimated to cost nearly twice that of today’s Virginia-class boats, will likely consume most of the budgetary slack. And if there is any spare funding, the Navy might use it for the large payload submarine planned to follow Columbia.

The second challenge is operations and maintenance spending. The Navy’s reasonable argument for retiring surface vessels today is rising repair costs. Although new ships like the Ford-class carrier are showing how automation and digitation can lower maintenance costs, the emerging generation of DDGs, FFGs, LPDs and LCS are so much more complicated than their minesweeper, LSD, or CG predecessors that it seems unlikely surface fleet sustainment will get cheaper. The Navy’s shipbuilding plan bears this out by estimating that operations and maintenance spending will grow even as the fleet shrinks.

The third challenge will be personnel. The Navy missed its recruiting goals by almost 20 percent in FY 2023, although retention remains strong. The Navy may not have enough surface sailors to crew a larger fleet and attracting and keeping talented personnel will demand funding that will further pressurize Navy budgets.

Embracing The Navy's Role in Diplomacy And Deterrence

The solution for some navalists is to raise the Navy’s budget so it can grow the fleet and address an expanding set of peacetime challenges and wartime demands. This approach worked well during the last decade, and Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro deserves praise for advocating that the Navy’s contribution to diplomacy and deterrence demands appropriate funding.

However, the Navy’s budget increases could be reaching their limit. Overall defense spending is likely to remain roughly flat through FY25 based on the Fiscal Responsibility Act and the impact of rising interest rates on federal deficits. And within the DoD, it is unlikely lawmakers will accept further cuts to the Army to buy more Navy.

The Navy’s leaders need a plan to arrest the slide in surface fleet capacity that does not assume a future budgetary windfall.

Surface leaders should base a new course for the surface fleet’s design on its role in the peacetime promotion of US national security and prosperity, as directed by Section 912 of the FY 2023 National Defense Authorization Act. These operations — on display now in Europe, the Middle East, and western Pacific — require sustained presence that can only come through a combination of capacity, readiness, and forward basing.

Before devoting more than half its amphibious ship and surface combatant funding each year to buy a single DDG(X), the Navy should reconsider if the surface fleet’s best use is fighting China on day one of a war over Taiwan. Submarines, bombers, and unmanned systems might be better tools for those initial engagements.

With a less-ambitious DDG(X), the Navy might be able to continue buying two destroyers and two frigates each year — or grow the fleet faster by buying a single DDG(X) and four or more FFGs. Rethinking DDG(X)’s requirements would also enable the Navy to prioritize its lifecycle affordability, which will be essential to ensure readiness dollars are available to keep fleet’s unmanned vessels, LCS, amphibious ships, and frigates forward where they support campaigning and competition.

The surface Navy could also better shape its unmanned system programs by prioritizing competition over conflict. For example, the Large Unmanned Surface Vessel (LUSV), intended as an auxiliary missile magazine to help DDGs fight China, may not be useful in day-to-day competition and the need for surface combatants to protect and supervise LUSVs could make them a liability. However, by making LUSVs optionally unmanned and equipping them to host small crews, the Navy could use LUSVs as additional small combatants and reduce the need for them to be escorted by destroyers or frigates. This additional cost could be funded by savings from DDG(X).

Like the other military services, the Navy faces increasing pressure to be relevant in a fight with China. However, not every naval community needs to be able to stop a short-notice invasion across the Taiwan Strait. The surface force, including the amphibious fleet, is the Navy’s most visible and versatile tool for day-to-day competition, diplomacy, and conventional deterrence. Its leaders should embrace that role to succeed in an increasingly challenging fiscal and operational environment.

Read in Breaking Defense.