An MH-60R Sea Hawk helicopter, attached to the “Proud Warriors” of Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron (HSM) 72, lands on the flight deck of the USS Harry S. Truman while transiting the Bab al-Mandeb Strait on Dec. 17, 2019. The Navy had planned to decommission the carrier in 2024, but reversed that decision.

An MH-60R Sea Hawk helicopter, attached to the “Proud Warriors” of Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron (HSM) 72, lands on the flight deck of the USS Harry S. Truman while transiting the Bab al-Mandeb Strait on Dec. 17, 2019. The Navy had planned to decommission the carrier in 2024, but reversed that decision. (Gabrielle Joyner/U.S.Navy)

This story is part of a Stars and Stripes special report on what's ahead for the U.S. military as a new decade begins. See the list of stories here.

YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — The acting Secretary of the Navy in December directed the service to reach 355 or more ships — from aircraft carriers to unmanned submersibles — within 10 years, an accelerated timeline that trims two decades off previous plans.

Yet it remains unclear how the Navy could reach that number — or whether it should.

Acting Secretary Thomas Modly’s predecessor, Richard Spencer, in March asked Congress for $31 billion to build 355 ships by 2049, a goal set in the law under the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act.

Modly, speaking Dec. 5 at a U.S. Naval Institute defense forum, called out the lack of a strategy to meet those goals while reiterating that a 355-ship Navy “is stated as national policy.”

“We have a goal of 355; we don’t have a plan for 355,” Modly said. “We need to have a plan, and if it’s not 355 — what’s it going to be and what’s it going to look like?”

The Navy’s revised 30-year shipbuilding plan for fiscal year 2020 includes an average of 10 new ships per year. Coupled with an April 2018 decision to extend destroyer service lives to 45 years, the plan would bring the fleet to 355 by 2034 — 15 years earlier than the March shipbuilding plan projected, according to a Congressional Research Service report.

In 2019, the Navy added nine ships and saved the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman from the scrap pile. The Navy planned to decommission the Truman in 2024 and put the money saved toward other projects. After the announcement drew scrutiny, Vice President Mike Pence in April told the crew the White House reversed course on the decision.

The Navy’s 2020 five-year shipbuilding plan calls for 55 new ships by 2025. It’s still unclear how Modly’s 10-year timeline would be met.

As of Jan. 10, the Navy had a 293-ship fleet, according to the service. In its 2020 budget, the service requested 12 new ships — an aircraft carrier, three attack submarines, three new guided-missile destroyers, two oilers, a frigate and two towing, salvage and rescue ships.

Some see 355 as a soft target.

“More important is ensuring that we have the maximum capability to address every challenge we’re going to be facing,” Spencer said in October at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. He called 355 ships an “important aspirational goal.”

The same month, Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Robert Burke told journalists he was unsure whether the Navy would reach 355 ships.

“I think with today’s fiscal situation, where the Navy’s top line is right now, we can keep around 305 to 310 ships whole, properly maintained, properly equipped and properly ready,” he said.

The shipbuilding pace could be at risk in 2021. The Navy in late December issued a memo to the White House’s Office of Management and Budget proposing to cancel the development of five destroyers, one submarine and a frigate to save money in the 2021 budget, according to a Dec. 27 Defense News report.

The same memo also suggested decommissioning four littoral combat ships and three dock landing ships in 2021, all of which have between eight and 17 years of planned hull life left.

On Jan. 7, Republican Sen. Susan Collins expressed concern over the reports to Defense Secretary Mark Esper in a letter co-signed by fellow Maine Sen. Angus King Jr., an independent.

“We write to express our strong support for a 355-ship Navy and to urge continued support from the Department for a robust shipbuilding budget,” Collins wrote. “Ultimately, Congress is responsible for annual Department of Defense and Navy appropriations, and we will continue to support a growing fleet in order to protect our national security … as threats around the world continue to grow.”

President Donald Trump in 2016 campaigned on a promise to grow the Navy to 350 ships, which became 355 the following year under the defense authorization act, demanding the expanded battle force “as soon as practicable.”

Congress decided on 355 number at the behest of a 2016 force-structure report analyzing the Navy’s current assets and future needs. It suggested adding 18 attack submarines, 16 large surface combatants, four amphibious warfare ships, three combat logistics force vessels, three expeditionary support base ships, two command and support ships and one aircraft carrier.

It would be the largest effort to raise the number of ships in nearly four decades, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Proponents of a 355-ship Navy point out the obligations that come with a national defense strategy that focuses on “great power” competition with China and Russia.

Thomas Callendar, former senior research fellow for defense programs for the Heritage Foundation, in an October 2018 report argued that leaving the Navy with less risks the “nation’s ability to deter aggression and win in conflict when necessary.”

“The fatal collisions of 2017 demonstrated how years of fiscal pressure could stretch a Navy that is too small for the demands the nation places on it to its breaking point,” he wrote, referring to separate collisions involving the USS Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain that together killed 17 sailors.

Post-collision reports indicated that too rigorous deployment tempos in the 7th Fleet led to the waiving of certifications before setting sail, leaving crews undertrained.

“While the increased funding and priority placed on Navy readiness have helped to turn the tide, unless the fleet becomes significantly larger, the Navy will be unable to meet its operational demands and ensure that the fleet is ready to respond rapidly to crises,” Callendar wrote in the report. Twitter: @CaitlinDoornbos

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Caitlin Doornbos covers the Pentagon for Stars and Stripes after covering the Navy’s 7th Fleet as Stripes’ Indo-Pacific correspondent at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan. Previously, she worked as a crime reporter in Lawrence, Kan., and Orlando, Fla., where she was part of the Orlando Sentinel team that placed as finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news. Caitlin has a Bachelor of Science in journalism from the University of Kansas and master’s degree in defense and strategic studies from the University of Texas at El Paso.

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