October 18, 2020

Esper's 500-ship Navy

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper recently announced that not only would the US try to hit the 355-ship target by 2035 that the Trump Administration has pursued since entering office, but it would also seek to reach 500 ships by 2045. This is incredibly aggressive, although in makes sense given the rising power of China.

Secretary of Defense Espurr (Artist's Conception)

Esper began his talk by invoking Mahan and traditional US strategic thinking, which is incredibly promising. He also talks about the growing power of things like autonomous weapons and AI, which I'm less sure about and need to look into more. And apparently he wasn't happy with the Navy's modernization plan, which is why this particular plan is coming out of the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) and not the Department of the Navy. That's historically maybe not a great sign, as the only other case I can think of offhand of the OSD exercising this kind of control over shipbuilding was during the McNamara years, and pretty much everything that happened there was a disaster.

So what is the actual plan for this 500-ship Navy? Esper began by emphasizing the need for more SSNs, with a target of 70 to 80 boats. This is an increase over the 55 SSNs currently in commission, and probably a good idea, although the 66 called for in the current plan is also reasonable. He then moved onto the carriers, saying that while the CVNs will remain the core of the fleet, with 8 to 11 in commission (vice 11 currently and 12 in the plan), he is planning to introduce up to 6 light carriers flying F-35Bs to back them up, probably based on the America. This is not going to sit well with naval aviation. First, light carriers are rightly seen as a serious threat to the CVN force, and future administrations may not have Esper's commitment to the CVNs. Second, STOVL brings with it serious operational limitations, and in practice, a CVL is likely to be less effective per dollar than a CVN. Given American capabilities and commitments, we'd probably be better off with an extra CVN or two.

Esper then moved on to the surface fleet, suggesting that the 2045 plan would include 140 to 240 "unmanned and optionally manned surface and sub-surface vessels of all types". I have to admit that I'm not fully up on everything going on with unmanned warships these days, but this seems... extremely dubious. Not that unmanned warships will become a greater part of the fleet, because they will. But that they'll be bought in those numbers, and will give the sort of capability Esper talks about. The most concrete plan I've seen is for something like the recent Sea Hunter, which will shadow hostile submarines. And it's definitely worth pointing out that these aren't proper warships as we would usually define the term. Sea Hunter is 135 tons, while the smallest commissioned ships right now are the Cyclone class patrol ships, at 330 tons. While there are plans for larger unmanned surface vessels, none are likely to be good replacements for a proper warship, and if 25% or more of the USN's top-end strength is composed of these vessels, it's going to be very different from 500 actual warships. The whole thing puts me in mind of Representative James McClintic, who solved the cruiser gap in the 1920s by declaring that all warships between 1,000 and 5,000 tons were cruisers, thus bringing in the very large flush-decker destroyer program and removing the need to buy treaty cruisers. By defining things like Sea Hunter as warships, Esper can have his 500-ship Navy without actually making it that much more expensive than the 355-ship fleet that is the current plan for 2035.

He also suggests a requirement for 60 to 70 small surface combatants, specifically calling out the FFG(X). The SSC category also includes the LCS, and the current plan is to have 52 ships of this type, so the increase is small.

Esper called for an increase in Combat Logistics Ships, 70 to 90. This is probably the UNREP force, currently forecast, as best I can tell, for 32 ships. I'm not sure how well thought-out this is. He seems to be suggesting buying smaller ships by using the word distributed, but without more detail, it's impossible to tell.

The same applies to amphibious forces, currently slated for 38 ships, which are going to be pushed to 50 to 60. I'd guess that the growth is probably the proposed LSTs/Light Amphibious Warships intended to support the new Marine strategy. Again, we have small, cheap ships inflating the numbers.

Now, there are two major omissions from this list: the large surface combatants (DDGs and CGs) and the SSBNs. Note that the 355-ship force contains 104 of the former and 12 of the latter. But if we take the minimum of every vessel type and add them up, we get 398 ships. So we already have numbers that don't add up, unless he's planning major cuts in the backbone of the surface fleet. He's also not mentioned command/support ships, although some of those may fall under Combat Logistics, depending on what gets counted where.

On the whole, this is not a solid plan. First, it's worth pointing out that the USN isn't going to ignore unmanned vessels under the current plan, so Esper counting them in his plan is just showboating. Second, there's the fact that almost all ship types have a value that ends in a zero. This strongly suggests we're seeing rough estimates here, not the results of a careful study. Compare what Esper announced with the 355-ship plan:

Ship CategoryNumber
Large Surface Combatants104
Small Surface Combatants52
Amphibious Ships38
Combat Logistics Force (UNREP) Ships32
Command and Support Ships39

When compared with this plan, Esper's vision doesn't look particularly solid. At best, it's way too early to commit to the sort of distributed firepower he's touting. At worst, it's political grandstanding, artificially inflating our fleet numbers by counting small vessels while neglecting the ships that provide actual striking power. There's also the issue of timing. While Esper seems to be deliberately aping Regan's 600-ship fleet (and a DDG was recently named after John Lehman, the man responsible for delivering said fleet) this is not something you drop right before an election, particularly one as close as this. We'll take another look when he gets us some numbers that are solid enough to work on, even assuming that Esper stays in office come January.

Looking back a year later, this looks to have been largely right. Esper's plan has disappeared without a trace, and the Biden Administration is more or less sticking with Trump's 355-ship plan.


  1. October 18, 2020Alexander said...

    I assume secretary Espurr was Lord Nelson's contribution Ü my autocorrect wanted to make Espurr Expire, which I suspect may be close to your own feelings.

    We went over this a bit on the Teams meetup, but I agree on the light carriers and think that the US can afford CVNs and DDGs, in numbers great enough to make CVLs and FFGs all but unnecessary.

  2. October 19, 2020Blackshoe said...

    On the subject of large surface combatants, I would expect the CGs to just go away entirely and be replaced by nothing (other than DDG FLTIII), which frees up 20 or slots for other ships. Also, for small surface combatants, LCS's assumed lifespan was 25 years (IIRC), and I honestly doubt it will even make that, so I could see a factor being built in for those numbers being that "all the LCS will be gone by then anyway".

    CVL is an interesting idea; I feel like someone is subtly trying to tell the aviators that "SGR doesn't matter, my dudes, especially for 90% of what we actually use carriers for". I'm not sure how useful it will actually be in support of the supposed distributed operations, but at least we can probably build it (assuming the money is there, which I don't and frankly think the opposite, but hey, why not wish for it?).

    I do suspect that the driving force in this assessment was "Start at 500 ships, fill in everything we know we need, and then add in unmanned vessels to get to the goal line". I mean, I can't take any plan too seriously when it seems to have 20% variance in its own data numbers.

  3. October 19, 2020bean said...


    The Espurr was a join joke. I don't dislike Pokemon, it's just not really my thing.

    I don't think that the FFGs are unnecessary. There are a lot of missions where you just need a warship of some kind, and even FFG(X) is arguably overkill for those. (The Type 31 is a lot closer to the minimum for these jobs.) Sure, if you can afford enough DDGs to do them all, then go for that, but we're kind of at the point where we can't, and we'd get more value by buying FFG(X), which should trade 2 to 1 for Burkes, IIRC. I'd take 52 FFGs and 104 DDGs over 130 DDGs.


    There's talk of a future surface combatant design, and it's going to be either a DDG or a CG, depending on the week. We'll see how that pans out.

  4. October 19, 2020cassander said...

    I don't like the idea of refueling more LA class submarines, the money would be better spent on more Virginias. And with the cost of FFG(X)s already rising to near the level of burkes, I'm not particularly sanguine about FFG(X) making up serious numbers.

    More important than the question of overall numbers is getting a proper large surface combatant program going that gives us something to replace the burkes with. My preference would be for something designed around 2 colombia class reactors. That won't happen, but we need something with IEP and room for expansion coming down the pipeline.

    Also bean, I'd suggest putting espers number in the table with the 355 ship plan to make comparison easier.

  5. October 21, 2020Suvorov said...

    Any reason not to just put a pair of catapults and arresting cables on those light carriers?

    It seems that super-carriers right now are under-utilizing their deck space (they could carry more planes than they do) and maybe it's good to be able to surge capacity, but I've always been sort of fond of the idea of operating a pair of smaller carriers instead of a single large carrier. In Esper's plan, that would look like a small carrier and a supercarrier together.

    But it seems like you could get a lot of bang for your buck by just going all the way – then you could land and launch whatever you want (something something distributed lethality.) What am I missing?

  6. October 21, 2020bean said...


    I don't have it in a table because it didn't come to me in a table, and frankly it doesn't deserve to be in one, because it's not a serious plan.


    The problem is that carriers have significant economies of scale. You need the same area for arresting gear, and the catapults are the same length. So there's not much deck left over for operations. Charles De Gaulle ran into some serious problems on this front.

  7. October 26, 2020Directrix Gazer said...

    Some months ago I mentioned doing a guest post on a presentation by Trip Barber that I attended. He covers the same topics, at a somewhat higher level, in this interview, in the context of the 2045 plan.

  8. October 29, 2020Lord Nelson said...

    I would die for Secretary of Defense Espurr.

  9. November 02, 2020Jack said...

    I doubt that the light carriers will happen. If they do, they will be called LHA's or LHD's like we already do. The USN looked into lighter CV's back in the 1970's but when they did the analysis, the USS John F. Kennedy CV-67 was going to cost about the same as a lighter carrier so the idea was dropped. I imagine something similar will happen again. Larger carriers offer a lot more, and yes they aren't being filled out like they were 30 years ago. But the USN is doing that to save money. It is a lot easier to build a few more planes than another carrier. Battleships went away because smaller surface ships could do the same job. The HMS Queen Elizabeth is 70,000 tons with at best 40-50 planes while the Nimitz is 50% larger with twice the air group.

  10. April 17, 2024Tom Chambers said...

    Just found and read this 2020 post out of curiosity. I agree that the Esper plan was divorced from reality.

    From the vantage point of 3.5 years on, even 355 ships by 2035 looks like an impossible dream...unless 100 of them are sub-500-ton USVs. Even the FFG is years behind schedule, just like everything else in the pipeline. The industrial base to build and maintain even 300 proper ships isn't there; the personnel base to man them isn't there; the funding base looks increasingly precarious.

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