The US fleet is at an important crossroads. Nearly twenty years after the drive for transformation led to costly and problematic programs such as the littoral combat ship (LCS), Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carrier, and Zumwalt-class destroyer, the Navy is again starting work on new ships in every vessel category. It is essential to make smart decisions on the design of these ships, and of the fleet as a whole, to create a force that affordably supports future defense strategy and avoids mistakes of the past.
The Navy is arguably facing a once-in-a-century combination of challenges and opportunities as it embarks on its new family of ships. Today its leaders, like their predecessors in the years after World War I, are reconsidering the relevance and survivability of the fleet’s premier capital ship. In addition, emerging technologies are enabling new platforms and tactics that could disrupt the design of today’s fleet; rising adversaries are threatening US allies and the international order; and budget constraints prevent the Navy from countering revisionist powers by simply growing the fleet with better versions of today’s ships and aircraft. Today’s Navy, however, unlike its interwar predecessor, sustains a global presence to underpin a network of alliances and protect vital sea lanes and does not have the luxury of bringing the fleet home to retool for the emerging competition.
The Navy will need a new fleet design to affordably address its challenges and exploit its opportunities while maintaining today’s operational tempo. Unfortunately, its current plans fail to deliver on these goals. The force structure reflected in the PB 2020 Shipbuilding Plan and FY 2021 budget, by continuing to emphasize large multimission combatant ships, includes too few ships to distribute the fleet or create sufficient complexity to slow or confuse an enemy’s attacks. Moreover, the fleet’s weighting toward large manned platforms creates unsustainable O&S costs that the Navy is even now struggling to pay.1
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