- Republican presidential candidate and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has promised a massive naval expansion, achieving a fleet of 600 battle force ships in 20 years.
- To reach that goal, DeSantis will have to put forward a clear plan of what kind of ships the Navy needs to deter China and why, experts told the Daily Caller News Foundation.
- “Reaching 600 warships by 2045 is a distant goal, and I am more concerned that the nation will lose interest and we will drift right back to the dangerous place we are today,” Brent Sadler, the senior research fellow for naval warfare at the Heritage Foundation, told the DCNF.
Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis has ambitious plans to ramp up the size of the U.S. Navy, but his policy will require strong leadership to overcome a historic lack of will and clear strategy, experts told the Daily Caller News Foundation.
DeSantis made building up the U.S. Navy a key piece of his Republican presidential campaign promise as the cornerstone of deterrence amid China’s growing threat, pledging to put the Navy on track to build 600 battle-ready ships within 20 years. It’s the most aggressive of the candidates’ stated plans for naval expansion and will come down to two major issues: money and leadership, experts told the DCNF.
“It is achievable, but without significant changes in the policy environment, it is not feasible,” Bryan McGrath, founding Managing Director of The FerryBridge Group strategy firm and 25-year Naval officer, told the DCNF. “The Navy has never grown without direct, personal, presidential involvement,” he added.
“I’ve already released a plan. We’re going to get to 355 ships at the end of the first term, 385 ships at the end of the second term. But we’re going to have a path to 600 ships over the next 20 years,” DeSantis said at the third Republican presidential debate on Nov. 8.
DeSantis will have to give the American people a clear, convincing assessment of the goal and how much it will cost to get there, expand the shipbuilding industry, take steps to bring dying or standby ships back into service and fix sailor recruiting, McGrath said.
“There is no magic in his plan,” McGrath said. “The bottom line for me is that will is the missing ingredient here.”
Experts told the DCNF that growing the Navy to 600 ships is possible, but will require major sacrifices and long-term political determination that could easily dissipate.
“Reaching 600 warships by 2045 is a distant goal, and I am more concerned that the nation will lose interest and we will drift right back to the dangerous place we are today,” Brent Sadler, the senior research fellow for naval warfare at the Heritage Foundation, told the DCNF.
The Navy’s current building and decommissioning plans would see the fleet expand to 300 battle force ship by the early 2030s and 319, 328 or 367 by 2053, depending on which of three courses of action Congress authorizes.
Taking into account likely increases in the costs of labor and materials and unexpected complications, the Congressional Budget Office in a recent report estimated that new construction alone could cost as much as $36.1 billion yearly — 43% higher than the Navy’s current budget allocation.
The Navy received roughly $245 billion for 2023 and has requested more than $255 billion for its total 2024 budget, although Congress has not yet approved a budget for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1.
However, fully purchasing the larger fleet outlined in the 2024 plan could see the budget balloon up to $330 billion by 2053, CBO estimated. The organization took into account that shipbuilding costs, operation and support costs tend to rise faster than the rate of inflation across the general U.S. economy.
Achieving a 600 ship navy in that same period would cost even more. That means building additional shipyards, fostering competition in the defense base so more companies come online, and attaining a maritime and naval workforce big enough to build, maintain and operate each vessel.
In recent years, the Navy operated between 270 and 300 ships, and has a goal of 355, according to a Congressional Research Service report. In a five-year plan covering 2024 through 2028, the Navy calls for building about 11 ships per year, which, if sustained, would result in a fleet of 385 ships by the 2060s.
Growing to 385 ships by 2032 means the U.S. needs to build about 19 new ships each year to account for the ships that decommissioned over the same period, Sadler explained to the DCNF. About half of those would be from existing designs. “Cheap, no, doable, yes,” Sadler said
Anyone asking for a larger Navy “must also articulate how this is an investment in American industrial might and human capital which takes a generation to develop,” Sadler said. The industrial base is “dwindling,” but a sign of sustained investment could provide the missing impetus for investors to jump in.
Capacity to surge production was slowly chiseled out of the industrial base, as maintaining that extra room seemed inefficient in peacetime, McGrath explained. DeSantis must buy that margin back.
For example, the U.S. submarine base has fallen behind on AUKUS commitments since the Biden administration announced the plan in March, requiring the U.S. to produce attack submarines at a minimum rate of more than two per year, according to USNI News. It’s presently at 1.2.
Aside from size, DeSantis will confront a problem of exactly what kinds of ships to build, and how many of each, as well as developing programs for new kinds of ships and scrapping others, experts said.
“For starters, DeSantis would need to show how he gets to a 355-ship fleet from the fleet we have today,” maritime strategist Craig Hooper told the DCNF. “The idea of a six hundred ship Navy in twenty years may poll well, but, frankly, the DeSantis plan is meaningless without additional context. What America needs is a maritime strategy that tells everybody what ships America needs and why,” Hooper said.
Former President Donald Trump pursued a fleet of between 382 to 446 ships by 2045 . To achieve that plan, however, his administration refused to let go of the faltering Littoral Combat Ship program and kept other ships reaching the end of their expected lifespans, Hooper told the DCNF.
“A lot of those ships are gone now or are about to go—and it’d be tough to bring them back. Even if we did, it would be quite an effort to balance their limited combat capability with the amount of effort required to make the older ships relevant on a modern battlefield,” Hooper said.
DeSantis’ plan is “aspirational,” Hooper said.
Recruiting is another issue, and one that can’t be solved with money alone, experts said.
The Navy fell short of recruiting goals in 2023 by 20%.
“The Navy is not a job it is a commitment of patriotism. Simply paying more alone will never solve recruitment problems, though it helps, but making more of the uniqueness of a naval life needs to be popularized more to make the arduous life required something more would aspire to,” Sadler said.
Finally, a president seeking to grow the fleet must also dump money into shipyards that can maintain vessels better than they do currently, experts said.
Equipment at the Navy’s four public shipyards is past its lifespan and those yards will be unable to support roughly one-third of planned maintenance periods for aircraft carriers and submarines through 2040 without improvements, according to a June GAO report.
The Navy’s $1.8 billion maintenance backlog, growing worse by the year, hinders readiness, another GAO report found.
“This isn’t exclusively a money problem, but it is largely a money problem,” McGrath said.
On Capitol Hill, among China watchers and defense strategists, widespread agreement exists that the Navy is inadequate — in size, composition or both — to confront the challenge of China.
“It’s about time,” Republican Virginia Rep. Rob Wittman said at Politico’s defense summit Tuesday in reaction to questions about the Navy’s size surfacing at the third Republican GOP debate.
DeSantis’ campaign did not immediately respond to the DCNF’s request for comment.
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