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Navy Secretary faces heat from Congress for requesting 50 more ships for 355-ship fleet by 2030

Mineman 3rd Class Jackson Zimmerman, right, explains the capabilities of the SeaFox mine disposal unmanned underwater vehicle to Under Secretary of the Navy Thomas B. Modly aboard the Avenger-class mine countermeasures ship USS Gladiator (MCM 11) during a visit to Naval Support Activity Bahrain. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Samantha P. Montenegro/Released)
February 28, 2020

In a Thursday congressional hearing, acting U.S. Navy Secretary Thomas Modly said the U.S. Navy will need between $120 billion and $130 billion in additional funding over the next decade to meet the service’s goal for a 355-ship fleet.

Modly told lawmakers the Navy’s existing budget would allow the service to maintain its current fleet of 305 ships, but that the service needs between $12 billion and $13 billion in additional funding annually to have the fleet up to 355 ships by 2030. The Navy’s current shipbuilding budget is at about $20 billion, according to the U.S. Naval Institute (USNI).

House Armed Services Committee Chairman, Democratic Rep. Adam Smith, noted that President Donald Trump’s most recent budget requests downsized the Navy’s shipbuilding accounts and saw the reduction of one attack submarine planned for the fleet.

“It’s almost meaningless at this point, since it’s like 20, 30 years out,” Smith said. “It’s great to have goals, I suppose, and we can aspire towards that number. But at a point, at this point, it seems like just that, an aspiration.”

Smith suggested the emphasis should be the Navy’s overall goals for its fleet, rather than a specific number of ships. Ranking member Mac Thornberry also suggested the Navy should consider the characteristics and capabilities of ships as well as the specific number they want.

Modly said the current Navy budget does slow the service’s trajectory towards its goal of 355 ships, but that he believes the Navy could still achieve its goal within “what I consider a strategic relevant timeframe of no more than 10 years.”

Modly said the Navy was conducting a “Stem to Stern” review in hopes that the service may be able to find an additional $8 billion a year for the next five years.

“I think ultimately we can dig deep and find something, but there’s going to have to be a broader discussion about a higher topline for the Navy,” Modly told the committee.

Modly continued, “I am completely convinced that there’s money within our budget that could be spent a lot more efficiently – I’m talking about just the Navy budget – and we have to do the work to do that before we can convince anybody else above us to give us more in our topline.

Modly insisted the 355 ship fleet goal is not based on an arbitrary number, but rather one based on a 2016 study of the Navy’s needs and that he was pushing to achieve that goal within a relevant amount of time before the assessments of the services needs dramatically change.

Rep. Elaine Luria, (D-VA), suggested the current fleet might manage with a different schedule for ship deployments. She noted that the Navy’s current Optimized Fleet Response Plan (OFRP) has ships deploying for only six out of every 36 months where the service previously had a deployment schedule of six out of every 24 months.

“I’m not that smart with math, but I am a Navy nuke, and I can do the math backwards, and 355, if you do the math backwards, at 25 percent of the time you only need 282 ships to do the same thing presence-wise before you went down in the amount of time you are deployed,” Luria said, referencing her U.S. Navy service. “So honestly, a force structure assessment and a 30-year shipbuilding plan that are based off of an assumption we’re only going to deploy 17 percent of the time, six or seven out of 36 months it doesn’t work.”

Modly insisted the Navy could achieve the goal but that the service needed help from Congress to fund the effort.