The Navy's top officer said he's looking for ways to build the service to a strength equivalent to 355 ships by the mid-2020s.
But it's unlikely that all those ships will be traditionally manned and operated platforms.
In a nine-page document released Wednesday examining the future Navy, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson consolidated the findings of three recent studies examining the target future force. He agreed with the conclusion of all three that the Navy needs "on the order" of 350 ships, up from its current 275, and calls for an "exponential" pace to deliver the growth decades ahead of current projections.
"I will tell you that my sense is that we're on the dawn of something very substantial in naval warfare," Richardson told reporters in a conference call Monday evening. "Something as substantial as the transition from sail to steam ... from wood to ironclad ... as the advent of nuclear propulsion in terms of what it means for our naval power."
To reach the target fleet size by the 2020s, Richardson said the Navy plans to do a few traditional things, including extending the service life of existing platforms. The workhorse Arleigh Burke-class destroyer is one example of a platform likely to be extended for this purpose, he said.
This and other platforms will be evaluated individually to find ways to increase their power and capability, both by networking them with other assets around the fleet and by installing transformative emerging technologies to extend their reach, Richardson said. He mentioned technologies ranging from unmanned and autonomous enhancements; information warfare and directed energy; and 3D printing and robotics as candidates for this effort to boost capability.
"Platforms on an individual basis need to become informationalized, need to become more capable platform by platform," he said. "In my gut, there's a real urgency to move out on this as briskly as possible, prioritize achieving this future Navy much sooner than projections might have led some to believe."
While capability enhancements will allow the Navy to do more with fewer ships, Richardson said the service nonetheless needs to amp up ship construction as a crucial part of its fleet growth plan.
"There is kind of a demand for presence at different parts around the world," he said. "And this has been an important part of that body of studies. You really need to be there to provide credible options. You can't be virtually present and provide that credible option."
According to the new analysis, the Navy asserts that the current industrial base could build 29 more ships and nearly 300 more aircraft over the next seven years than the current shipbuilding plan calls for.
And these ships will be built differently than they have in the past, Richardson said. The future of Navy shipbuilding, he said, lies in modular platforms that could be easily upgraded with the most current warfighting technology, maximizing their effectiveness.
"In all, analysis shows that today's industrial base has the capacity to construct 29 more ships and almost 300 more aircraft over the next seven years than our current plan," the document states. "Those platforms are ones that we are confident will continue to be relevant in the coming decades, and can better incorporate the modular approach described above."
"The hull and power plant will last, ostensibly, the life of the ship," Richardson said. "But we'll design the rest of it, use the very latest technology that we have right now, but it will also be built to step into the future faster, to modernize faster, really from the ground up ... so part of the ship that's built to last, if you will, part of the ship that's built to grow and modernize."
Unmanned platforms, both surface and undersea vessels and aircraft, will also play a larger role in the future fleet.
Richardson offered few details on how many of these unmanned platforms would be built into the target fleet size number or what roles they would take on. But the future Navy document says they will play a key role in driving down unit cost of construction and will network with manned platforms to maximize reach.
"There is no question that unmanned systems must also be an integral part of the future fleet," the document states. "The advantages such systems offer are even greater when they incorporate autonomy and machine learning. And these platforms must be affordable enough to buy them in large numbers, and networked in order to expand our presence in key areas."
Many decisions have yet to be made. Richardson said Navy analysis puts the cost of the planned ship buildup at far less than the $102 billion per year for 30 years that the Congressional Budget Office assessed in April. But it's still more than the Navy has traditionally spent on annual shipbuilding, he said, and a final way forward in terms of cost and budgeting is still being determined.
"We have to be open to the fact that if we want a larger, more powerful Navy, that's going to require some resources to get there," he said. "But we have to do everything inside the Navy to make sure that we're prioritizing the right thing, we put those resources to the thing that's going to deliver more naval power per dollar."
According to the document, the Navy will take the year 2018 to "consolidate readiness and achieve better balance" across the service.
"We need to determine the best way to get the most overall capability in relevant timeframes, which will result from a mix of new and modernized hulls," the document states. "From that starting point, we must focus our intellectual energies on defining the optimal mix of platforms for the future, within a timeframe appropriate to the dynamic complexity we face now and that will only intensify in the future."
The first steps of the Navy's fleet growth plan will likely become clearer later this spring with the president's fiscal 2018 defense budget request.