ANNAPOLIS, Md. -- The president and the House and Senate agree: The Navy needs about 355 ships, up from its current battle force total of 278.
But while top Navy officials have heartily endorsed the 355 number and said repeatedly that the fleet needs to grow fast, there are subtle indications the service is considering looking beyond ship numbers to maintain dominance.
"It's going to take a long time, and it's going to take a lot of money," acting Navy Undersecretary Thomas Dee said at the National Defense Industrial Association's Expeditionary Warfare Conference on Wednesday.
"We can get on a mark, by mid-century, to be approaching 350 ships with significant additional topline in our shipbuilding accounts, and it's in the billions of dollars. So that's possible. Is that realistic? We don't know," he said.
Dee, who previously served as vice director of the Navy Staff before being assigned to temporarily perform the duties of the Navy undersecretary in February, acknowledged the service's current stated strategy: to shore up readiness in the fiscal 2018 budget and to begin supercharging fleet growth in fiscal 2019.
But with sequestration defense spending caps from the 2011 Budget Control Act potentially affecting the fiscal calculus until 2021, Dee said the Navy is contending not only with limited funds, but also with fiscal uncertainty that hobbles long-term planning.
"[With] ships, you can't do this on individual and incremental decisions," he said. "It's got to be a holistic view of how we're going to build a future capability."
The Navy continues to pursue the funding its ideal fleet size requires.
"[Defense] Secretary [Jim] Mattis is determined that that's going to be based on a strategy, with the realization, to quote the Rolling Stones, that you can't always get what you want," Dee said.
"So we may want a 355-ship Navy, we may want it very soon, perhaps we'll be able to get there," he said. "But we're going to have to work with our partners over on the Hill, and we're going to have to work out the best-laid plan to lay and increase funds."
Navy leaders have stated they need the extra ships fast. The Congressional Budget Office laid out a spending plan that could get the service to 353 ships by 2046 at the rate of an extra $102 billion per year.
Naval Sea Systems Command has discussed a strategy to reach 355 by 2030.
But in a May planning document, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson discussed the potential of reaching "on the order" of 355 ships by the mid-2020s, leveraging unmanned systems and other cutting-edge technology to build the fleet while getting more out of existing platforms.
Dee's remarks reinforce the perspective that increasing the Navy's power may not be just about the numbers.
"So what do you do, assuming that you're not going to get all that money and you can't wait until 2050 in order to have the capacity?" he said. "Now you're looking at, how do you provide that capacity and that capability in some other ways besides just counting platforms."
The race for more ships is driven in great part by the competition. China is reportedly on track to have 351 ships by 2020, while Russia's Navy is in the midst of its own major buildup.
With the U.S. military's growing focus on multi-domain warfare, Dee suggested capability should be assessed collectively, taking into account surface, subsurface, air, space and cyberwarfare efforts, leveraging all together to maintain a competitive advantage over these adversaries.
"If you look at those domains … in each one, we're in a pretty good place," he said. "Putting them all together just might help us to outpace the competition."