As President Trump’s first term reaches its conclusion and he prepares to run again, his administration focuses on fulfilling promises from the 2016 campaign. One concrete point is Trump’s goal to expand the US Navy’s fleet to 355 ships, an ambition confirmed in several subsequent statements. Congress cemented his aspirations into law in Section 1025 of the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act.
However, the possibility of building and maintaining 355 manned ships appears increasingly impossible given projected budgets and the Navy’s current rate of development. In the face of an increasingly unachievable goal, many argue that numbers are not the most important metric. For instance, one way out of the numerical dilemma would be to change the way that ships are counted. Technology has provided improved capabilities for unmanned ships; in fact, the Navy has several times attempted to expand the counting methodology but failed in the face of congressional opposition. Defense hawks worry that such changes are merely artifices designed to undercut the Navy.
Some critics argue that the value placed on numbers is wholly misleading, and that capabilities of ships could be a better way to measure the quality of the fleet. However, ship count is more easily understood than fleet capability. Defense hawks cling to the concept of safety and strength in numbers, and so numerical methodology remains the ultimate measure of the size and strength of the Navy, to its detriment.
Criticism and vacillation within the methodology of ship-counting can seem irrelevant; however, the Navy’s inability to meet or circumvent the administration’s demand for 355 ships a worryingly critical failure. Most importantly, by delaying the announcement of the new FSA until the spring, the Navy missed an opportunity to include its results in the new 2021 budget and forfeited the ability to reshape the fleet and meet the standards of the modern national defense strategy. The American fleet risks losing its superior position the longer it struggles to define technicalities of how its forces should be structured.