Defense secretary lays out plan for a massive 500-ship Navy by 2045

  • Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said Tuesday that the US Navy needs more than 500 ships by 2045 to counter China.
  • The Pentagon envisions a force of 355 traditional warfighting vessels by 2035 and a larger for of over 500 manned and unmanned vessels by 2045.
  • The plan, known as Battle Force 2045, calls for more submarines and hundreds of unmanned or optionally-manned assets, among other changes.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper argued Tuesday afternoon that the US Navy needs more than 500 ships by 2045 to counter China.

Speaking at an online Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments event, Esper unveiled his plan for the future fleet: “Battle Force 2045.” The plan calls for a force of 355 traditional warfighting vessels by 2035 and a larger force consisting of over 500 manned and unmanned vessels by 2045.

While Esper made note of the threats and challenges posed by Russia, his focus was China, which the secretary pointed out plans to modernize its armed forces by 2035 and build a world-class military by 2049.

“At that time, Beijing wants to achieve parity with the United States Navy, if not exceed our capabilities in certain areas and to offset our overmatch in several others,” Esper said.

A recent Department of Defense report on China’s growing military might said that China has already achieved parity or outpaced the US in some areas, one of which is shipbuilding.

China “has the largest navy in the world, with an overall battle force of approximately 350 ships and submarines including over 130 major surface combatants,” the Pentagon assessed in its latest China Military Power report.

The Pentagon also reported that “China is the top ship-producing nation in the world by tonnage,” adding that the country is currently working hard to increase “its shipbuilding capacity and capability for all naval classes.”

The China Power project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies has estimated that China could have 425 battle force ships by 2030. The US Navy currently has a battle force of 293 vessels. 

“The United States must be ready to deter conflict, and if necessary, fight and win at sea,” Esper said in September. To maintain overmatch as China grows stronger, he said that the Navy needs a larger and more balanced naval force. On Tuesday, he laid out some of the specifics details.

He said the service needs a “larger and more capable submarine force” of 70-80 submarines.

The secretary characterized attack submarines as “the most survivable strike platform in a future great power conflict” and stressed the need for the Navy to begin building three Virginia-class submarines a year as soon as possible.

The proposed future fleet would include eight to 11 nuclear-powered carriers supported by up to six light carriers. The light carriers could handle day-to-day missions, freeing up the larger flattops for higher-end fights.

Esper also called for extending the range and increasing the lethality of the carrier air wing, which he said will need to consist of both manned and unmanned aviation assets.

The future fleet would ideally include 140 to 240 unmanned or optionally-manned vessels, both surface ships and undersea assets, that could conduct resupply, surveillance, mine-laying, and missile-strike missions, among other operations.

“They will add significant offensive and defensive capabilities to the fleet at an affordable cost in terms of both sailors and dollars,” Esper said.

The defense secretary also called for filling the Navy’s ranks with as many as 60-70 smaller surface combatants, such as the new class of frigate currently in the works.

Esper said that the Navy needs at least 70-90 combat logistics ships, possibly more. The Pentagon is also looking at sealift capacity to make sure that ground combat forces can get into combat quickly and with sufficient combat power.

He also said that at least 50-60 amphibious warfare ships are necessary to support Marine operations.

Esper said that the goal of “Battle Force 2045,” which was derived from the not-yet-released Future Naval Force Study, is to build the US naval force into a “more lethal, survivable, adaptable, sustainable, modern, and larger force than we have seen in many years.”

To build this massive fleet, the secretary argued Tuesday in favor of increasing Navy shipbuilding funding to 13% within the service’s top line, matching that of the Reagan-era buildup.

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