Some of the Navy's ships could stay in service well beyond their scheduled lifespan as leaders look for ways to modernize existing vessels as part of a decades-long fleet buildup.
Navy leaders want to have 355 ships by 2030, but that doesn't mean that all of them will come new. Officials are studying ways to salvage some of the service's aging vessels as part of that plus-up -- and that doesn't come without challenges.
"[Operating] as an away-game Navy is very expensive, and this requires us to look at the lifespan of everything we own," Vice Adm. William Merz, deputy chief of Naval Operations for Warfare Systems, said Wednesday at conference hosted by Defense News.
Navy leaders plan to detail the kinds of capabilities they'll need in a 355-ship fleet in an extensive report expected to be released next year. Part of that process, Merz said, will include taking a look at what ships will still be relevant in a future fight.
That's an important factor in determining how much money to invest in refurbishing ships that have already been in service for decades. The Navy recently decided to extend the lives of some cruisers and destroyers, he said, because they're so effective.
"Not only did we determine they're going to be relevant, they're also extremely well-built ships [with] longevity," Merz said.
Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Virginia, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee's seapower and projection forces subcommittee, last year pushed the Navy to extend the life of its Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruisers. Some of those ships are more than 35 years old.
As the Navy looks at threats from China and Russia, Wittman said at the Wednesday conference, it needs to make use of all capable assets in the fleet. China is expected to far outpace the U.S. in the number of attack submarines.
That development, he said, is "by any measure not acceptable."
Staying on plan with new submarines, aircraft carriers and small-surface combatants is important, he said. But so are software, weapons and radar upgrades that can keep older ships competitive, he added, along with keeping vessels on their maintenance schedules.
"We have to make sure that we are doing everything we can in the maintenance realm," Wittman said. "... I argue that ship maintenance will be as important to getting to 355 as is ship building.
"Our ability to project power [around the world] is going to come from the sea, so our Navy and Marine Corps are going to be at the tip of the spear."