The Navy Knows How Many Ships the Future Fleet Needs – But It's Not Telling for Now

The USS Paul Ignatius, USS Kearsarge, and USS Gunston Hall
The USS Paul Ignatius, center, USS Kearsarge, left, and USS Gunston Hall sail in formation in front of the USS Arlington in the Atlantic Ocean, Sept. 25, 2021. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class John Bellino) 

The man in charge of the Navy's surface forces has rolled out a new plan to ready the fleet for a possible conflict with China and Russia and announced that he knows how many ships he needs to fend off the two nations.

But Vice Adm. Roy Kitchener is not saying what that number is, at least not publicly.

Instead of total ships, Kitchener and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday said the Navy's new strategy, unveiled Tuesday, is focused on bold action to face foreign adversaries as it struggles with ship maintenance, delivering new technologies and institutional learning across the service.

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"While some of the press reports out there about the technological wizardry of China and Russia are overdone, the progress they are making is substantial and the threat they pose is real," Kitchener told a crowd at the annual Surface Navy Association's symposium Tuesday in Alexandria, Virginia.

"We must align and accelerate our efforts to maintain our warfighting advantage," he said.

The commander of naval surface forces said the Navy now has "a really good idea of how many ready ships we need at any given time." He even referred to that number as his "North Star."

However, during a conversation with reporters after the speech, he said that he would not release it publicly.

Since the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, which requires the Navy to expand to 355 ships, the service has been aiming to meet that goal. The service currently has about 297 battle force ships, including logistics and supply vessels. The target number has been subject to partisan wrangling over the years, but it has also been complicated by the Navy's recent issues in fielding both the Littoral Combat Ships and Zumwalt-class destroyers.

Meanwhile, Kitchener said the new 10-year plan revolves around five points of effort, with each assigned a responsible flag officer. It includes improving sailor training and development, producing more ready-to-deploy ships, smoother introduction of new types of ships to the fleet, forming "clear and innovative" operational concepts, and creating new infrastructure that the future fleet can use for coordination and combat.

According to Kitchener, the single most important factor in getting more ready ships is maintenance -- an area that has been a weakness for the Navy in recent years. A U.S. government watchdog report found that the service has generally struggled with completing repair work on time and incurred more than 38,600 days of maintenance delays between 2014 and 2020.

Kitchener said that the Navy is tackling the problem, but "we're by no means done with this work, or satisfied with our results." The admiral said that the branch is "applying an analytic approach to maintenance."

Gilday, the Navy's top uniformed leader, offered a similarly sober assessment of the challenges before the sea service at the conference.

The Navy has seen "instances of unsatisfactory human performance ... depletion of shipyard maintenance availability, and failure to deliver game-changing, innovative technologies," Gilday said.

He said two factors are holding the Navy back: too large a gap between the most and least capable performers, and an outdated approach to institutional learning and problem solving.

"This is the critical decade -- our decade to get real and to get better," Gilday said.

Kitchener said the surface fleet "must better align in order to get in front of the challenges we face – challenges stemming from serious strategic competition and the complexity of the force we are becoming."

"The threat is real, the challenge is considerable, and what brought us here isn't going to take us forward," he said.

The Navy plan released Tuesday said it aims to take the challenges and the service's strategy and translate them "into bold action."

The "call to action is urgent," and Navy leaders will need to move forward "with strategic discipline and make hard choices amidst scarce resources," according to the plan.

-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.

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