The Navy could start lobbying Congress to rethink a law requiring it to have 12 massive aircraft carriers in its arsenal, the service's acting secretary said.
Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly said Wednesday that "everything is on the table" when it comes to the next force structure assessment, which will lay out a plan for the types and numbers of vessels the service needs. He said he plans to present the plan to the defense secretary this week.
The Navy's current plans call for a 355-ship fleet, including a dozen aircraft carriers by 2065. But Modly said leaders must be more realistic about what's achievable in the next decade instead of planning for a future Navy when "we'll all be dead."
"I think that number is going to be less [than 12 carriers]," he said Wednesday at an event on the Navy's future surface force. The event was hosted by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, D.C.
Modly pointed to the high $13 billion price tag on each of the Ford-class carriers. He also said top Navy and Marine Corps leaders are looking closely at what kinds of ships they need for more distributed operations -- more platforms across a bigger area -- as they face new threats from capable militaries, such as China, Russia and Iran.
"The big question, I think at the top of the list, is the carrier," he said of the future fleet. "What's the future carrier going to look like and what's the future carrier mix going to look like? These are really, really expensive assets."
Any plan to cut carriers could reignite a debate that played out on Capitol Hill last year when the Navy presented plans to retire the Harry S. Truman decades early in order to free up cash to pay for cutting-edge unmanned surface vessels and other emerging technologies.
The Navy planned to forgo the Truman's roughly $4 billion midlife nuclear refueling that would keep the ship in service for about 25 more years. Navy leaders argued they needed the funds to invest in new capabilities immediately if the service is going to be ready to take on near-peer enemies described in the National Defense Strategy.
Lawmakers hit back, and the Trump administration eventually reversed course, canceling plans to send the Truman into early retirement.
Modly declined to say whether there are new plans to cut any carriers in 2021 since the president's budget isn't finalized. As the Navy looks at how it'll fight in the years to come, though, Modly said carriers would be considered attractive targets.
"Of course, we're developing all kinds of things to make it less vulnerable, but it's still a big target," he said. "And it doesn't give you that distribution that I think we want."
Modly said the conversation about possibly shedding aircraft carriers is one that must continue. But it can't be had only inside the Pentagon, he added.
"This is a national discussion," Modly said. "I think as many people that get involved in this, the better. Congress obviously has interests; our shipbuilding industry does as well. We all do. We want to have a strong shipbuilding industry; we want to be able to continue to produce those carriers -- they're important.
"But we have to think about what the future is," he added.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the cost of Truman's proposed midlife refueling.