The Navy could face serious hurdles in meeting a new goal to almost double the size of its fleet to more than 500 ships by 2045, defense experts say.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper unveiled a lofty plan Tuesday to boost the number of traditional warships to 355 in the next 15 years, and to add scores more vessels -- manned and unmanned -- by 2045. Esper cited China's aggressive plans to professionalize its military in the next couple decades as one of the top reasons the U.S. must pour resources into building a stronger Navy.
Experts don't disagree, but say it's going to require a lot more than moving Pentagon funds around to pay for it. Congress is going to have to back and fund the plan, said retired Navy Capt. Brad Martin, now with Rand Corp.
"I think it is a good thing for the country to look at," Martin said. "The hazard I see with it -- and I think it's a significant hazard -- is that building ships is not enough. There has to be an adequate level of maintenance, an adequate level of training, and an adequate level of personnel for manning. That's not really factored in."
Bryan McGrath, a retired surface officer and naval consultant, agrees. The plan is likely to come with a massive bill, he said, that probably won't have bipartisan support. He estimated that the ownership costs of a 500-ship Navy would run about an extra $100 billion more per year over current costs.
"All ships of any size, manned or unmanned, have a certain irreducible and incompressible support cost," McGrath said. "They need parts. They need fuel. They need grease. They need weapons, they need sensors, they need command and control. If there are people, they need food. They need medical care."
Some estimates show the Navy's shipbuilding budget will have to increase by as much as 40% a year to carry out this plan, said Dakota Wood, a retired Marine officer with the Heritage Foundation.
"The question on everybody's mind," he said, "is 'Where does this money come from?'"
Battle Force 2045, as Esper referred to the plan, calls for significant investment in attack submarines, amphibious ships that can operate as mini-aircraft carriers, more logistics combat ships, and still-in-development unmanned vessels.
Esper said funds would be moved from "across the Department of Defense enterprise," harvested from Pentagon-wide cost-saving reviews, to help pay for the shipbuilding increases.
The Navy has also been searching for funds it can move to cover shipbuilding costs, he said, adding that he'll request authority from Congress to move any unused Navy budget at the end of each fiscal year into the service's shipbuilding accounts.
But if the costs overrun those efforts, which experts say is likely, and Congress doesn't provide more funding, it could lead to a "food fight" among the military branches, Wood said.
"I think every [service] has a very legitimate argument to make," he said, regarding the need for increased funding. "The entire military establishment is too small for a growing complex, highly lethal world. It is certainly old in terms of its overall equipment and so you need to replace aging items with new stuff.
"It's just it's a real problem," Wood added.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are already showing mixed reactions to Esper's announcement.
Sen. Roger Wicker, a Mississippi Republican, called the plan "a bold vision of what our future fleet can be," adding that he stands ready to work with the Senate Armed Services Committee and Pentagon leaders to see it carried out.
Rep. Joe Courtney, a Connecticut Democrat and chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces, said Battle Force 2045 "begs for more detail and explanation."
But since both parties recognize the threats from Russia, China and others, Martin, McGrath and Wood all say the goal to build a bigger Navy is likely to remain intact long term, no matter who wins the election.
Esper presenting the 500-ship plan for the first time publicly -- rather than the Navy secretary or chief of naval operations -- is also significant, Martin said.
"It's notable because the secretary of defense, who really doesn't have much of a naval background, still sees the Navy and the capability it brings as being really important to national defense," he said. "He's taking the lead and pushing for expanding the size and the capability of the Navy."
If the U.S. wants to be present in places like the vast Asia-Pacific region so it can understand what competitors are doing and be on station to deter bad behavior, Wood said, the Navy needs more resources.
"It simply needs more ships," he said.
Though Esper acknowledged Tuesday that the Navy must not allow maintenance to suffer as it focuses on building hundreds of new vessels, Martin said Congress needs to press service leaders about how they will ensure that remains a priority. The Navy's track record when it comes to keeping its force maintained "is not very impressive," he said.
"Maintenance is very hard to recover and it's also very easy ... to defer things," he said. "... I think if there's one place Congress should really be paying a lot of attention, it is on that issue, because that is something that will be allowed to slide -- and it'll be by little degrees.
"Nothing real bad happens right away," Martin added, "but over a period of a couple of years, lots of bad things happen."