While all eyes are on the Navy's hopes to surge the fleet to 355 ships, the biggest surprise in next year's budget request for the service may come in manpower.
Although previous budgeting plans called for for the service's end strength to remain relatively steady at close to 323,000 active-duty sailors through 2021, this year's request reflects plans to increase active-duty end strength to 327,900, according to documents released Wednesday.
Overall, the budget request totals nearly $145 billion, compared with last year's $135 billion. The most significant year-over-year increase is in the Navy's operations and maintenance accounts, which saw a nearly $7 billion surge as the service seeks to claw back readiness and reduce delays that in recent years have resulted in late deployments and cost overruns.
The proposed 4,000-man end strength boost is primarily reflected in enlisted troops.
"We will manage our personnel strength to deliver a naval force that produces leaders and teams who learn and adapt to achieve maximum possible performance, and who achieve and maintain high standards to be ready for decisive operations and combat," the request's authors write in the document.
Earlier this month, Chief of Naval Personnel Vice Adm. Robert Burke acknowledged in a congressional hearing that a planned fleet buildup would require more sailors to man and maintain the additional platforms. Depending on the speed at which the ships are built and other factors including how many of the ships are unmanned, he said, the Navy would need between 20,000 and 40,000 more sailors to complete the surge.
Those looking for an infusion of shipbuilding cash to kickstart the Navy's desired ramp-up to a 355-ship fleet won't find it in next year's defense budget request. The Fiscal 2018 President's Budget Request actually represents a modest decrease in shipbuilding and over the fiscal 2017 enacted budget -- $21.2 billion compared with $19.9 billion.
Those funds will pay for just eight ships next year: the final year of costs for the carrier John F. Kennedy and the first year for the carrier Enterprise; two Arleigh Burke-class destroyers; one littoral combat ship; two Virginia-class submarines; and a John Lewis-class fleet replenishment oiler. Also included in funding are three ship-to-shore connectors, continued long-lead research for the Columbia-class submarine program, and nearly $1.75 billion of investment in the next America-class amphibious assault ship, the Bougainville.
The fleet will see a boost from its current strength of 275 ships, with 12 battle-force ships set to be delivered in the coming year: four littoral combat ships; two expeditionary fast transports; one expeditionary sea base; two Arleigh Burke-class destroyers; two nuclear attack submarines and the second of three Zumwalt-class destroyers, the Michael Monsoor.
For the first year in the program, the budget plan calls for the purchase of just one littoral combat ship instead of two -- part of a planned programming shift as the service prepares to buy the LCS-based frigate. It's entirely possible, though, that Congress may intervene and require the Navy to buy additional ships.
In a letter sent to Defense Secretary James Mattis in April, a bipartisan group of eight senators whose states have stakes in the LCS program asked for a 2018 budget that funded three littoral combat ships, enough to ensure "industrial base stability" at both shipyards that build the vessels. Currently, two variants of the ship are produced by two shipbuilders: Lockheed Martin Corp. and Austal.
The budget request also includes $143 million to allow the Navy to reassess its frigate program to ensure that "the multi-mission frigate paces future threats," according to the document. The frigate has been a subject of intense congressional scrutiny as multiple government watchdog reports have determined that the design does not increase combat survivability to the extent planned.
Earlier this month, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson released a future fleet overview that hinted the real investment toward a 355-ship Navy would come in Fiscal 2019.
"First, we need a year to consolidate our readiness and achieve better balance across the Navy; 2018 will be that year," Richardson wrote in the document. "And even as we restore wholeness, we'll ensure that we continue to grow the Navy and establish a firm foundation for accelerating growth in following years."
In February, multiple outlets reported that two-thirds of these fourth-generation strike fighters were unable to fly as a result of maintenance delays or a lack of spare parts. Last year's initial budget request called for 14 Super Hornets, but the service ultimately ended up getting funding to procure 26 of the aircraft.
Meanwhile, the plan calls for the service to buy four more carrier-variant F-35C Joint Strike Fighter aircraft as it continues its ramp-up to 260 of the aircraft. The F-35C is set to reach initial operational capability in 2018, the last of the three variants to hit the milestone.
The request, however, offers little insight on the lingering question of whether the Navy will invest more heavily in advanced Super Hornets as a result of scrutiny from President Donald Trump on the costs of the F-35.
At the start of this year, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis ordered a review comparing the Super Hornet and the F-35C to determine whether the fourth-generation aircraft, with improvements, could substitute for the fifth-generation plane. Final decisions as a result of that review have yet to be announced.
The request also has the Navy buying its first carrier-designed variant of the V-22 Osprey. As the start of a seven-year procurement contract, the service will purchase six CMV-22 Osprey as part of a long-range plan to replace the aging C-2A Greyhound for delivery of personnel and gear to carriers underway. That acquisition process is set to be complete by 2024.
While the Navy budget request contains funds for research and developmental testing for the next-generation jammer, the VH-92A presidential helicopter replacement, and the Ford-class carrier advances arresting gear technology, among other programs, it appears to lack additional dedicated funding to explore still-unidentified issues with the Super Hornet and the T-45 trainer that have caused a recent increase in hypoxia-like cockpit incidents among pilots.