Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Tuesday revealed that the Pentagon wants more than 500 Navy ships in the fleet by 2045 to counter China.
“Battle Force 2045 calls for a more balanced Navy of over 500 manned and unmanned ships,” Esper said during an appearance in Washington, D.C., referring to the name for the Pentagon’s planned future fleet.
“Further, we will reach 355 traditional battle force ships prior to 2035.”
Esper said the increase was due to China’s intent to complete modernization efforts for its armed forces by 2035 and to fully field its military by 2049.
“At that time, Beijing wants to achieve parity with the United States Navy, if not exceed our capabilities in certain areas and to offset our overmatch in several others,” he said.
The ship numbers will include “eight to 11” nuclear aircraft carriers as well as “up to six light carriers joining them,” in addition to 70 to 80 attack submarines.
Defense News was the first to report on the increase, which would ultimately be a fleet of fewer aircraft carriers and larger combat ships, with more small surface combatants, unmanned ships and submarines.
The plan is the result of the Future Navy Force Study, commissioned by Esper and led by Deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist to design what a future Navy should look like.
The Navy for the last several fiscal cycles has had plans to have 355 ships in 10 years.
But unexpected budget drains, including President Trump’s plans to build a southern border wall – a move that transferred $911 million for shipbuilding programs to its counter-drug fund – have put the plan on shaky ground.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said earlier this year that the 355 ship goal is “almost meaningless at this point” since it could take decades to achieve.
“It is great to have goals, I suppose, and we can aspire toward that number, but at this point, it seems like just that; an aspiration doesn’t translate necessarily into a strategy,” Smith said.
But Esper on Tuesday said the Pentagon now has “a credible path to reaching 355-plus [ships] in an era of fiscal constraint.”
“The team’s findings are insightful and serve as an enduring framework that will drive a major shift in how we design build and sustain our fleet and conduct naval operations in the years and decades to come,” Esper said. “The results will enable the department to achieve our objectives in a timely and cost-effective manner.”
Specific details on the buildup and budget plan will soon be delivered to Congress, Esper said, though he did not say what programs would take a cut to achieve the goal.
The U.S. military currently has a little less than 300 manned ships in its fleet.