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Overhauling US Navy’s 355-ship force concept to better fit growing challenges

The 355-ship force has emerged as the pinnacle for America’s naval recapitalisation and modernisation efforts. While concerns about costs remain consistent, former assistant secretary of the US Navy for shipbuilding and logistics, Everett Pyatt, has presented some options that benefit the US Navy and allies seeking niche, yet aggregated allied capability.

The 355-ship force has emerged as the pinnacle for America’s naval recapitalisation and modernisation efforts. While concerns about costs remain consistent, former assistant secretary of the US Navy for shipbuilding and logistics, Everett Pyatt, has presented some options that benefit the US Navy and allies seeking niche, yet aggregated allied capability.

Naval power has always played a critical role in the way great powers interact – competitions to design the most powerful warships often characterising the great power competitions of the past. 


The decades leading up to the outbreak of the First World War saw an unprecedented competition between the UK and German Empire, with much of the emphasis placed on Dreadnought battleships echoing a similar, albeit smaller, naval arms race gathering steam between the US and China.

In recent years, nations throughout the Indo-Pacific have begun a series of naval expansion and modernisation programs with traditional aircraft carriers and large-deck, amphibious warfare ships serving as the core of their respective shift towards greater maritime power projection.

At the end of the Second World War, the aircraft carrier emerged as the apex of naval prestige and power projection.

Today, naval power remains one of the central pillars of any nation's strategic policy and the world's premier navy, the US Navy, is increasingly facing the very real limitations of US economic, industrial and political will at a precarious period in global history. 

While US President Donald Trump has been rather inconsistent on the subject, he remains committed to achieving a 355-ship fleet, capable of guaranteeing global maritime security, freedom of navigation and stability in the face of increased peer and near-peer competitors.


This push has seen many within the US Navy and within the US naval shipbuilding industry seek to balance shipbuilding and 'readiness' in a new era of state-based competition. 

Indeed recently, Defense Secretary Mark Esper explained the importance of balancing readiness with force and platform modernisation, explaining to the Senate Armed Services Committee:

"This need to balance current readiness with modernisation is the department's central challenge and will require strong leadership, open and continuous dialogue with others, and the courage to make tough decisions."

Learning the lessons of today and yesterday

Entering the ever-evolving debate about America's naval shipbuilding, recapitalisation, modernisation and force structure plans in the face of mounting budgetary pressures and rival great powers beginning to exercise their own industrial capacity and political will, former assistant secretary of the US Navy for shipbuilding and logistics, Everett Pyatt, has presented an interesting take on the challenges. 

Setting the scene, particularly regarding the spiraling costs associated with such an immense recapitalisation program, Pyatt states, "Expansion of the force over a 10-year period requires about 70 ships above replacement quantity or seven ships a year. Total annual ship acquisition for the next 10 years should be about 15 ships. Average procurement recently has been about eight ships. At this rate, force expansion is impossible.

"Recent administrations have not shown much creativity in the acquisition process. In 1981, the president established the 600-ship Navy goal. Leadership invented new acquisition processes, including two-ship carrier acquisition, competition in the cruiser and submarine programs, the build and charter for 17 logistics ships, acquisition of 100 used cargo ships, carrier service life extension, and battleship reactivations and others.

"Strict cost control was achieved with cost-centered management of requirements, future block upgrades, change orders and enforcement in production by contract competition. These actions were essential in attaining program-wide 'on schedule, on budget' successes.

"Nothing equivalent has occurred in the current Navy acquisition system."

Pyatt expands on this, raising concerns about the steady increase in platform price since the US Navy's last great modernisation and recapitalisation program in the 1980s, and its subsequent impact upon the number and availability of US navy combatants at sea, something Beijing's military planners are playing close attention to. 

"But the bigger cost control failure is doubling of average ship-constant-dollar cost from $1 billion in the 1980s to $2 billion today. This assures force decline since the shipbuilding budget has not doubled, but is rather likely to decline," Pyatt explains. 

"Chinese naval leadership has to be elated with the US failure to make progress toward the Navy force goal. They noticed the inability to maintain a 12-carrier force. The Chinese are pursuing their goal of a six-carrier Navy by 2035. They are building combatant ships at an alarming pace. They built a second shipyard for carrier production."

Room for maneuver in the acquisition, the force structure and potential for allies

Addressing these issues is the central premise of Pyatt's thesis, namely addressing the budgetary concerns, building on the success of existing programs like the Arleigh Burke Class and Virginia Class programs and avoiding the costly mistakes of the Littoral Combat Ship program. 

This can be encapsulated by Pyatt, who explains the challenges and outlines some responses at a policy, regulatory and industry level, where he states: "The challenge is quite clear. Change in all aspects is needed:

  • Policy: The 355-ship Navy is established law.
  • Budget: The Navy shipbuilding budget should be set at the Cold War constant-dollar average of $26.7 billion. This will be a design-to-cost Navy.
  • Average ship cost: In the 10-year force increase period, average cost for 15-ship annual production is $1.78 billion. Following that, in the sustainment period of a 355-ship Navy, average cost can be $2.67 billion.
  • Organise for success: First, give leadership authority, responsibility and accountability for achieving the 355-ship Navy to the Secretary of the Navy. Secondly, since the current combination of technology, production and sustainment has proven a failure in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Navy, the implementing organisation should revert to the Cold War model with:
    • One assistant secretary devoted to identifying and implementing technology necessary for success of offense and disruption of the adversary.
    • The second assistant secretary devoted to efficient acquisition and excellent sustainment. The Cold War success proves this organization works."

Expanding on this, Pyatt identifies a number of examples for existing US Navy surface and submarine combatant programs to ensure that the US Navy is capable of maintaining its qualitative and a measure of quantitative edge of peer and near-peer competitors around the globe. 

The backbone of the US Navy's power projection capabilities, aircraft carriers and big-deck amphibious warfare ships are critical to this plan, despite repeated and costly overruns for major programs like the Gerald R Ford and America Class vessels.

Pyatt explains a direction, "New approaches for future carriers should be evaluated, including:

  • Stripping unnecessary specifications from the Ford Class ships;
  • Evaluating a Ford-based design using modern conventional power;
  • Evaluating a smaller conventionally powered carrier; and
  • Refuel Nimitz Class carriers the second time."

Expanding on this, Pyatt explains there should be significant cross-pollination between the Army and Marines for the amphibious transport needs, stating, "Marines should use Army landing ships and logistics-over-the-shore concepts that have been in multi-service development for decades. Equipment is ready to buy with no development."

Turning to larger surface combatants, Pyatt states that the success of the Arleigh Burke Class evolutions, particularly with the advent of the Flight III variants, is reason enough to continue with the evolution of the platform, as opposed to following the disastrous and costly Zumwalt Class development process and developing a new 'Large Surface Combatant'.

Pyatt also states that the early progress made on the FFG-X, small surface combatant, future frigate program should be continued, avoiding the problems of the littoral combat ship, stating, "Congress saved the Navy from more littoral combat ships and provided a very sensible path for a replacement. The winner of that competition has been selected. Action is needed now to involve multiple sources."

The US Navy's other large capital expenditure programs, the Columbia Class ballistic missile submarines and the Virginia Class fast attack submarines are a mixed bag for Pyatt, who raises no issues with the Columbia program, yet raises some concerns with the Virginias.

In particular, Pyatt adds, "Submarine force planning is totally inconsistent with any concept of cost realism. Submarines have the biggest force gap, but planners show little interest in reducing unit cost, now approaching $4 billion. Other categories of ships have large and small ships, but submarines only get larger and more expensive. It is time to rethink the submarine force philosophy of 'bigger is better'."

Unmanned and autonomous platforms are also identified as a growth area for the US Navy as it seeks to reassert its qualitative and quantitative edge over potential adversaries, with Pyatt explaining, "It has taken decades to develop an unmanned mine countermeasures system. This is an important fact to understand when considering new unmanned missions. Rapid progress is not likely. A Senate Armed Services Committee report challenges the Navy’s approach and points to the success of the 'build a little, test a little, learn a lot' philosophy of the Aegis program. This is strong indication of lack of confidence in the Navy’s management of research and development efforts."

Each of these programs provides an opportunity, however, for the US Navy to work more collaboratively both with US service branches and with allied navies, like Australia and Japan as they seek to develop key capabilities, technologies and platforms that will not only serve to strengthen the alliance and respective industrial bases, but equally to nurture a high level of interoperability that results from platform commonality. 

Pyatt explains the impact his suggestions would have on the Indo-Pacific force structure and Beijing's as yet unprecedented naval build-up, without accounting for the role regional allies could play in supporting such large-scale programs, stating: "The Chinese have taken full advantage of this failure and press on with major shipbuilding programs designed to implement parity and dominate the seas surrounding China as well as the resources of the Pacific Ocean, while spreading maritime influence worldwide.

"The United States can and must do better by taking full advantage of the lessons learned in defeating the Cold War-era Soviet Navy."

Your thoughts

As an island nation, Australia is defined by its relationship with the ocean. Maritime power projection and sea control play a pivotal role in securing Australia’s economic and strategic security as a result of the intrinsic connection between the nation and Indo-Pacific Asia’s strategic sea-lines-of-communication in the 21st century.

Further compounding Australia's precarious position is an acceptance that 'Pax Americana', or the post-Second World War 'American Peace', is over, the world is now a multi-polar, contested environment. 

In response, Australia will require a uniquely Australian approach and recognition that the nation is now solely responsible for the security of its national interests, with key alliances serving a secondary, complementary role to the broader debate. 

Australia cannot simply rely on the US, or Japan, or the UK, or France to guarantee the economic, political and strategic interests of the nation. China is already actively undermining the regional order through its provocative actions in the South China Sea and its rapid military build-up.

To assume that Australia will remain immune to any hostilities that break out in the region is naive at best and criminally negligent at worst.

As a nation, Australia cannot turn a blind eye to its own geopolitical, economic and strategic backyard, both at a traditional and asymmetric level, lest we see a repeat of Imperial Japan or the Iranian Revolution arrive on our doorstep.

It is clear from history that appeasement does not work, so it is time to avoid repeating the mistakes of our past and be fully prepared to meet any challenge.  

There is an old Latin adage that perfectly describes Australia’s predicament and should serve as sage advice: "Si vis pacem, para bellum" – If you want peace, prepare for war. 

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Overhauling US Navy’s 355-ship force concept to better fit growing challenges
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