The Navy's new 30-year shipbuilding plan is intended to send a strong demand signal and provide predictability for the industrial base. However, trends that are informing a new force structure assessment could soon upend the blueprint.
In March, the service submitted its fiscal year 2020 long-term shipbuilding strategy to Congress. The version released last year was criticized by lawmakers and analysts for being too conservative with the timeline for increasing the number of battle force ships in the service's inventory. Under that construct, the Navy would not have reached its goal of a 355-ship fleet until the 2050s. However, this year's plan is much more aggressive.
"Through the judicious application of predictable shipbuilding profiles and stable, on-time funding, the timeframe for achieving the overall inventory [goal] was accelerated by 20 years," the document said.
The service currently has 289 battle force ships. Under the new schedule, the fleet would grow to 314 ships by 2024 and 355 vessels by 2034. The blueprint includes the procurement of 55 ships over the next five years, but service life extensions of DDG-51 Arleigh Burkeclass destroyers are the principle driver of the 20-year acceleration of the proposed fleet expansion, the report noted.
Promoting the health of the industrial base by implementing a predictable shipbuilding plan was a key theme in the strategy.
"We are at a level of fragility that without consistent and continuous commitment to steady acquisition profiles as proposed in this plan, the industrial base will continue to struggle and some elements may not survive another 'boom/bust' cycle," it said.
However, a new Navy force structure assessment is underway, and the results are expected to be released by the end of the year.
Ronald O'Rourke, a naval affairs specialist at the Congressional Research Service, said the assessment could lead to a change in both the total ship count goal and the mix of ships in the future fleet.
"They have dropped a lot of hints that there could be a change in the fleet architecture that could especially affect the surface force so that you'd have fewer large ships, more smaller ships, and... large unmanned surface vehicles," O'Rourke said during a panel discussion at the Heritage Foundation after the 2020 plan was released.
Earlier this year, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson suggested the 355 number is not set in stone.
"Technology is moving fast, and so how that [number] may change in response to these new technologies that are emerging, we're very open to that," he said during remarks at the Brookings Institution.
Moreover, a number of trends could make it difficult for the Navy to maintain the steady acquisition profiles that the 2020 plan envisions.
Strains on the industrial base could create hiccups, officials and analysts noted.
"We're relying very heavily on industry to tell...