Navy's 1st 4 Littoral Combat Ships Head to Retirement as Shipbuilding Budget Drops

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The littoral combat ship USS Independence (LCS 2) sails in the eastern Pacific. (U.S. Navy/Chief Mass Communication Specialist Shannon Renfroe)
The littoral combat ship USS Independence (LCS 2) sails in the eastern Pacific. (U.S. Navy/Chief Mass Communication Specialist Shannon Renfroe)

The Navy is forging ahead with a plan to build a 355-ship fleet, but its construction budget for new warships is set to fall significantly in 2021.

The Navy will spend $16.4 billion on two new subs, a pair of destroyers, a next-generation frigate, an amphibious transport dock, and two towing, salvage and rescue vessels next year. The submarine builds will include plans for the first of the new Columbia-class subs along with one Virginia-class.

That's according to its $161 billion budget request, including base and overseas contingency funds, that was unveiled on Monday. The Navy Department's overall budget total, which includes the Marine Corps' request, dropped by $2.9 billion in comparison with last year's request.

The Navy's shipbuilding budget would fall to $16.4 billion to buy eight vessels in 2021, down from $22 billion last year for 12 new ships. The decrease raises questions about how the service will get to its planned fleet size of 355 if it's building fewer ships than last year.

Navy and Marine Corps leaders are completing a force-structure assessment that will lay out a path for the new fleet size. Leaders have said that number is likely to top 355 ships, but could include smaller, lightly manned ships that can be built more quickly and cheaply than today's fleet of vessels.

This Navy is also moving forward with plans to invest in state-of-the-art unmanned ships, with $200 million slated for two more large unmanned surface vessels. Leaders have said unmanned ships will not be included in the 355-plus ship count expected to come out of the new force-structure assessment.

The Navy also plans to send several "less-capable" platforms into early retirement. That includes the first four littoral combat ships, which the Navy turned into non-deploying test ships in 2016, according to a Navy official familiar with the plan. Budget documents state a dock-landing ship will also be sent into early retirement.

Related: Navy Takes 1st Four Littoral Combat Ships Out of Deployment Rotation

"This budget adapts the force to reflect key changes in the security environment," budget documents state. "... Overall, the maritime system is more heavily used, more stressed and more contested than ever before."

The 2021 budget request includes a proposed 3% pay raise for troops. The Navy also plans to increase the size of its force by 7,300 -- up from 340,500 personnel to 347,800. Both the officer corps and enlisted force could get bigger as a result of that proposed change.

The extra personnel, the documents state, will help counter unmanned aircraft systems, assist with maintenance and readiness recovery, and man ships that will remain in service longer than planned, including cruisers.

The Marine Corps will face personnel cuts for the first time since the end of a post-war drawdown as leaders look to pay for more modern equipment.

Both the Navy and Marine Corps are investing in long-range and hypersonic weapons and other equipment needed to take on more sophisticated adversaries. That includes more F-35 joint strike fighter jets for each service, including 21 of the variant that can operate from aircraft carriers.

The Navy plans to buy 11 of those F-35Cs and the Marine Corps 10.

The service also wants to buy two dozen more F/A-18E/F Super Hornets and six more of the CMV-22s, modeled after the tiltrotor Osprey aircraft the Marine Corps uses on land and at sea.

Big weapon plans include nearly $5 billion in spending for more than 2,500 new ship and aircraft weapons. The Navy wants more than 500 of the various Tactical Tomahawk missiles that can be launched from surface ships and submarines. The service is also looking to increase its laser-guided Hellfire missiles from 29 purchased last year to 115 in 2021.

The Navy plans to invest $2.6 billion in 2021 into designing and constructing the third and fourth Ford-class carriers.

The request also restores funding for the aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman, which the Navy announced last year it wanted to send into early retirement to save money on its refueling. The ship will now be refueled in the beginning of fiscal 2025, the Navy's budget documents state.

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at gina.harkins@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.

Related: Acting SecNav Hints at Fewer Aircraft Carriers in Next Ship-Count Plan

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