How Trump Can Build a 350-Ship Navy

When President Donald Trump wanted to send a message to North Korea, he did it the old-fashioned way: by sending the USS Carl Vinson—a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier that holds a crew of 5,200 people and bristles with some 65 or so fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters—steaming toward the Korean Peninsula.An aircraft carrier is the ultimate expression of American power, a floating military base whose arrival inspires fear in our enemies and heartens our allies. The Vinson, along with its strike group of two destroyers and one cruiser, certainly caused top officials in Beijing and Pyongyang to sit up and notice. North Korea called the deployment “outrageous,” while China expressed “concern.” If both countries’ leaders didn’t understand how serious Trump is about stopping North Korea’s race toward nuclear-tipped missiles, they get it now.This is exactly why America has a Navy—and exactly why it’s so important that we rebuild it after years of atrophy as a result of the war on terrorism and budget constraints under President Barack Obama. Unfortunately, the Navy is no longer large enough to remain persistently forward-deployed to uphold international law or fully protect the nation’s interests. Set aside security threats like North Korea—the entire international economic system, nearly wholly dependent upon huge container ships, is nearing its fracture point. Once broken, this system based upon a loose maritime law consensus that is enforced by American naval might, will be difficult to reestablish.The shrinking Navy has led to a slow deterioration of the nation’s shipbuilding industrial base. Shipyards require steel-workers, welders, pipefitters, electricians, heating and air conditioning technicians and industrial managers, all well-paying jobs, but as shipyards and suppliers have closed and consolidated, many of those jobs and skills have been lost. The waning of America’s shipbuilding capacity is not just an economic issue; it damages our national security.This is why Trump’s promise in September 2016 in Philadelphia to “build a Navy of 350 surface ships and submarines,” as well his more recent commitment in Newport News, Virginia, to a “12 carrier Navy,” is so important. If he succeeds, he will join Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan as the presidents who have shaped the world and America through their commitment to the Navy.

President Trump has set out to do nothing less than reverse the slide in naval power that was a hallmark of the Obama administration’s timid foreign policy. Rebuilding the Navy is the cornerstone of a “peace through strength” posture that will deter America’s adversaries and reassure her friends. It will have the added benefit, as experience has demonstrated, of growing the American economy through the addition of thousands of well-paying blue-collar jobs.

And jobs aren’t the only economic benefit the Navy provides. Upholding the international trading system benefits all Americans. Unfortunately, in recent years, China, Russia, Iran and North Korea have been challenging time-honored maritime norms of free trade and free navigation and threatening the United States and its allies with expansive territorial claims in the East China Sea, South China Sea, Korean Peninsula, Strait of Hormuz and the Black Sea. Moreover, China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy is developing bases as far away as Africa, and Russian subs are patrolling at levels not seen since the Cold War. China is engaged in the biggest shipbuilding program by an emerging power since Kaiser Wilhelm II built Germany’s Kriegsmarine fleet that, in part, precipitated World War I. (The United States simply doesn’t have enough ships to sustain a serious response. Even the Vinson strike group is symbolic of the problem. In the past, a carrier would be escorted by two cruisers, two guided missile destroyers, two anti-submarine warfare destroyers and two escort frigates. Today, the Navy mustered only three ships—highly capable ones, but three nonetheless—to escort the Vinson.)

The president’s plan is designed to address these concerns, but it won’t be easy. Dramatically growing the fleet will require presidential-level leadership and significant investment. Adding 75 ships to the fleet will be a challenge both from an industrial perspective (the nation does not have as many shipyards as it once did) and from a fiscal perspective (since the president is dealing with a deficit that doubled under his predecessor).

The Navy’s uniformed leadership has stated that it may take as long as 25 years to reach the president’s goal, a time-frame that makes sense only if we accept modest increases in production of present classes of ships. It’s an unacceptably slow schedule, given the depth of the crisis—and it reflects a shipbuilding plan that is very similar to the one floated by the Obama administration. America needs a bigger Navy yesterday, not a quarter-century into the future. We believe President Trump can reach his goal of a highly capable 350-ship fleet by the end of his second term if bold action is taken now. With a little creativity, some political elbow-grease and good old-fashioned American ingenuity, here’s how he can do it.


We begin with a broad accounting of where we stand. Today’s fleet stands at 275 ships, up slightly from the 271 ships in 2015, but nowhere near the post-World War II average of 740 ships. The good news is that the Navy is scheduled in the next eight years to take delivery of 80 new ships already under contract including two carriers, 17 Arleigh Burke-class Aegis destroyers and 16 Virginia class fast-attack submarines—all front-line warships. The bad news is that over the same period, the Navy has scheduled 49 of its ships for decommissioning. These ships include five Ticonderoga-class Aegis cruisers and 21 Los Angeles-class fast attack submarines—again, all key components of the Navy’s wartime force. Taken together, these numbers add up to a net increase of 31 ships in the force over the next eight years—still 44 ships short of the president’s and his commanders’ requirement of 350 warships.


The number 350 is critical. The regional combatant commanders have identified 18 maritime regions around the world that require persistent American naval presence to protect the United States’ national interests. If one of these regions is “gapped” of U.S. naval presence, then international norms, such as free navigation, fall into disuse and are challenged by local actors. To be sure, not all of these regions demand an aircraft carrier. Arleigh Burke-class destroyers seem to work best in the Baltic and Black Seas, for instance, while amphibious ships are in demand in the African Gulf of Guinea, but, as a rule, it takes five ships to keep one forward-deployed: one arriving home, one in the yards for maintenance, one working up toward deployment, one deployed and one transiting home. Taking all of these factors into consideration, we arrive at a minimum number of 350 ships to maintain stability in the global maritime commons.

So how to get to 350? The first step should be a review of the ships scheduled to be decommissioned in order to determine their true condition. The five oldest cruisers in the force have been in the water for 30 years and are scheduled to be transferred to the “mothballed” Ready Reserve fleet at 35 years, but overhauls, refitting and service life extension programs could conservatively add five to 10 years to their lives. This work would have to begin immediately and would not be inexpensive—estimates range as high as 300 million per ship—but this option must be explored. Similarly, the Navy is looking to retire 9 of its 14 mine counter measure (MCM) ships over the next eight years. These ships fill a critical warfighting niche and were supposed to be relieved by littoral combat ships (LCS), but the mine-hunting systems that were to be installed on the LCS have not matured as expected, creating a strategic hole in the Navy’s spectrum of capabilities. The mine countermeasure ships are generally seen to be in good condition. Taken together, the service-life extensions of the cruisers and mine sweepers would add 14 platforms to the Navy’s ship count, decreasing the gap between the current plan and a 350 ship fleet from 44 to 30 ships.

Another option is to take a page from Ronald Reagan’s book and find capable ships in the nation’s “ghost” or Ready Reserve fleet. The ghost fleet is a collection of ships kept in wartime reserve. Decommissioned and preserved, they sit in the water in various strategic locations around the country ready to be called upon in a national emergency.

Currently, there are eleven Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates that are deemed too old and expensive to maintain by the Navy but are highly desired by allied navies such as Turkey, Taiwan and Egypt. These proven frigates could be refitted and equipped with modern anti-surface and anti-air missiles to get them back into the fleet and allow them contribute to presence and escort missions. This is precisely what our allies have done when they have purchased the Perry-class frigates from us at a fraction of the cost of building a new warship.

Additionally, there are three Ticonderoga-class Aegis cruisers that were decommissioned with 10 years of hull-life left in them. Each ship was scheduled to be scrapped by the Obama administration, but that decision can be immediately reversed. For an investment of $550 million each, an eighth of the price of a new cruiser, these warships could be upgraded with new vertical launch systems and returned to the fleet with 122 VLS tubes stocked with a variety of missiles, including the Tomahawk land attack missiles that struck Syria last week. Only the Russian Navy’s Kirov-class cruisers exceed the firepower of the Ticonderogas. To leave three of America’s most lethal surface combatant on the sidelines makes no sense in today’s dangerous world.

There are also two recently mothballed amphibious assault ships that should be inspected and considered for further service. With new technology such as rail guns, lasers, UAVs, Osprey tilt wing aircraft and F-35Bs, the big decks and welldecks of the amphibs could provide the Navy with many interesting opportunities. Each of these ships would also come with a maintenance and readiness bill, but again, retrofitting them would still be cheaper and faster than building new ships.

If half of the ghost fleet’s Perrys, Ticonderagos and amphibs can be returned to active service with new capabilities and an extended ship life, they would represent 8 additional ships in the fleet by the end of the president’s first term. So America would just need to build 22 new ships to reach 350.


This leads us to the topic of new construction. Presently the conversation within the Navy centers around taking the “warm” Ford (carrier), Burke (destroyer), Virginia (attack sub) and San Antonio (amphib) production lines and turning them “hot” by ramping them up to full capacity. While this step would have the result of improving the overall combat capabilities of the fleet, it would also add an average of $10 billion per year to the acquisitions budget of an already strained budget while only yielding an average of four additional ships per year.

While the Pentagon budget was increased by $54 billion in the president’s recent budget submission, the Navy can only expect to receive about a third of this amount. Most of those funds must go toward maintenance and readiness shortfalls left over from the Obama administration’s neglect. So unfortunately, few dollars in the current budget proposal are left for building the new warships the president wants and America needs.

In our view, new or additional acquisition dollars should be spent on the 12th carrier announced by the president, on submarines, where the Navy is facing a real numbers crisis, and on small surface combatants (frigates and offshore patrol vessels), where China is racing ahead of the United States.

The Navy should continue building its highly capable Arleigh Burke-class destroyers but at the current rate. Whereas two additional destroyers (the Navy already has 64 and is headed toward 80 by 2024) would cost $3.6 billion, that same money could purchase two robust frigates (FF) based upon the Italian and French FREMM class design, two 65-meter offshore patrol vessels (OPV) such as the Ambassador-class ships manufactured in the United States for Egypt, and two Joint High Speed Vessels modified with new surface-to-surface missiles to serve as fast missile attack ships (MHSV). One benefit of the FREMM class frigate, the most robust of the Navy’s frigate options, is that it could be built under license at the Marinette, Wisconsin, shipyard very soon after that yard finishes the current run of the Freedom-class LCS. The Freedom-class LCS consortium includes the FREMM’s Italian manufacturer, which owns the Marinette yard.

This diverse acquisition program represents an approach that embraces carriers, naval aviation, DDGs, subs and small surface combatants and missile boats, so that we can confront our adversaries at every level. It would allow the Navy to position squadrons of offshore patrol vessels and missile boats in the contested waters of the western Pacific, Mediterranean, Arabian and Baltic Seas, where they are urgently needed.

It’s a fiscally conservative approach that would also free up the resources to meet the president’s strategic goal of adding a 12th carrier to the fleet. The additional carrier is crucial, as the United States has found itself without a carrier in the Mediterranean and other key theaters on several occasions over the past two years. At present, the Navy will not see a 12-carrier navy for 19 years, and, then, only by speeding up by the build time for new carriers by a year. What many people do not know is that the dry dock at Newport News, where the carriers are built, can actually hold two super carriers. So we recommend building two carriers at once—just as the Reagan administration did in the 1980s, when it procured the USS Abraham Lincoln and the USS George Washington simultaneously. This would cost more than the current plan, but buying the ships concurrently would also allow the government to negotiate a discount. And it would get President Trump his 12th carrier into production by the end of his second term, should he be re-elected.


So, what about the jobs? All of this activity will reenergize the nation’s shipbuilding and repair industrial base in a manner not seen since the height of the Cold War. Navy shipyards in Norfolk, Bremerton, Pearl Harbor and Portsmouth will be engaged in service life extensions. Mothballed ships will flow into Philadelphia, San Diego and along to Gulf Coast and come back to life. New ships will come together in Wisconsin, Alabama, Louisiana, Oregon and even along the banks of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, just as they did during World War II, driving a renaissance in American shipbuilding and bringing much needed well-paying jobs to the nation’s heartland.

There will naturally be other expenses to be calculated beyond shipbuilding. Naval aviation will require another 225 aircraft to make up the current strike-fighter shortfall and man the 11th air wing once the 12th carrier comes on line, and there better be some long-range unmanned tanking and strike capacity in that air wing as well. The president has already talked about buying additional squadrons of Boeing’s proposed upgraded Block 3 Super Hornets. The additional carrier would allow the Navy to do so without significantly cutting into its F-35C buy from Lockheed. Additional ships will also require additional maintenance and readiness dollars. More sailors will also be needed. The last time the Navy had 350 ships, it had just shy of 400,000 personnel in its ranks. Today it has 323,000 sailors. Even with new unmanned technologies, the Navy will need more men and women in its ranks, and American sailors do not come cheap. On the very positive side for our sailors, more ships means shorter deployments and more opportunity for advancement and command.

OK, you might be asking: What’s all this going to cost? The Navy’s budget for fiscal year 2016 came in at $160 billion, a modest 1.5 percent increase over the previous administration’s submission. This budget is well short of the type of investment necessary to return the Navy to its full strength of 350 ships while also addressing significant readiness and maintenance shortfalls. To accomplish these goals, we recommend an average ship procurement budget increase of $7 billion per year over the next eight years. That would fund the shipbuilding program proposed here, including the purchase of an additional carrier, and cover the initial Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine replacement.We also recommend an average increase in aviation procurement of $3.5 billion over the next eight years to address the strike fighter shortfall and reintroduce a robust long-range strike capability in the carrier air wing. These new ships and aircraft will necessitate a change in the Navy’s Operations and Maintenance budget, which should rise from its present $48.4 billion to $57 billion. Increased personnel costs must be factored in as well, netting a $8.2 billion per year increase by the end of the second administration. Overall, the Navy budget we propose would rise from $160 billion to just over $190 billion by fiscal year 2024.


We expect the criticism of our plan to be fierce and furious. Deficit hawks on the right and those on the left who would rather spend more on domestic programs will complain about the precipitous rise in defense spending suggested within this proposal. They fail to grasp, however, the threats America faces today—from a rising China to a resurgent Russia to dangerous smaller players such as Iran. In the end, history teaches us that it is far less expensive to deter a war than to fight one, a lesson that has repeated itself since the Roman era. We also note that this naval budget would not increase the overall defense budget above the post-World War II average of 4 percent of annual GDP.

Some will say that investments in older ships is lost money in an age of anti-access/area denial weapons, but 90 percent of naval operations is preventing the outbreak of war through the consistent demonstration of peacetime presence and American resolve. Older frigates, which our allies operate for 20 years after we decommission them, new frigates and offshore patrol vessels are sufficient for this purpose. Moreover, they will all field more firepower than the Navy’s current small surface combatant, the LCS.

Others will argue that the Navy will be best served by a new “clean sheet” designed frigate, or even by pursuing an evolution of the LCS. Unfortunately, the two LCS designs have suffered through a series of engineering malfunctions and structural design flaws and are also considered to be too under-armed to be credible in combat situations. In general, American ship designs over the past generation have failed due to their built-in complexity and high cost. The Navy’s newest ship, the Zumwalt DDG 1000, has experienced early issues and has been limited to a class of merely three ships. It is even unclear if the Navy will purchase the costly high-tech ammunition for which its naval guns were designed.

It will be pointed out that our diverse shipbuilding plan would result in the Navy having four classes of small combatants in the fleet for a period of time (Freedom Class, Independence Class, Perry Class, and potentially FREMM class), which will bring additional parts, training and maintenance complexity to the fleet. Some of these issues could be mitigated by basing classes together geographically. However, at this point, numbers matter and the key goal must remain the 350 ship fleet.

Some naysayers will claim that missile-laden high speed vessels and offshore patrol vessels are too vulnerable to enemy attack. We reply that these ships are an inexpensive way to complicate the calculations of our competitors and project American power while reassuring allies. Indeed, China and Russia are themselves building new classes of missile craft and offshore patrol vessels for presence and sea control missions in key regions such as the Arctic, South China Sea and Taiwan Strait. To all of these critics, we say: As each day passes without a shipbuilding plan that reflects the president’s priorities, President Trump is missing a chance to make a strong start on significantly increasing the size of the fleet. Very soon it will be too late to influence this year’s budget cycle. Ships take two to five years to build, and ships included in next year’s budget will possibly not hit the water until after the next inauguration. The time to act is now.

We expect President Trump to announce his secretary of the Navy pick soon. We urge the Senate to quickly confirm him and his team so that they can get to work. And we encourage the new SECNAV and Defense Secretary Mattis to act boldly execute a shipbuilding plan that will make good on the president’s promises today, not tomorrow. The Navy requires the ships, our sailors deserve them and the American people need the jobs and improved defense industrial base this program will bring.

Capt. Jerry Hendrix, USN (ret) (@JerryHendrixII) is a retired U.S. Navy captain and award-winning naval historian. Hendrix is senior fellow and director of the Defense Strategies and Assessments Program at the Center for a New American Security.
Robert C. O’Brien (@robertcobrien) is a partner at Larson O’Brien LLP. He served as a U.S. representative to the United Nations General Assembly. O’Brien was also a senior adviser to Govs. Scott Walker and Mitt Romney and Sen. Ted Cruz during their presidential campaigns. His book While America Slept: Restoring American Leadership to a World in Crisis was released in September.
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