Just in case there was ever any doubt, the Navy really doesn’t want you to hold them to the 355 ship number it said it needed at the end of 2016.

Senior Navy leadership has made a cottage industry of down-playing its December 2016 assessment that attempted to match combatant commander demand with the kind of fleet size it might reasonably expect to build.

Since Jim Mattis took over as Defense Secretary in January, equivocation has been the order of the day when it comes to what size fleet the Navy is building towards in the era of President Trump.

And that continued Monday morning at Navy League’s annual maritime bonanza, Sea-Air-Space. In response to a question about priorities, the Navy top requirements officer told the crowd to focus less on the 355-ship number. When it comes to fleet lethality, its what’s on the inside that counts, Vice Adm. William Merz told the crowd.

“Capability is where we would really like to put most of our energy,” Merz, the deputy chief of naval operations for warfare systems, said. “That’s where we can return capability and make our fleet more lethal much more quickly than just building capacity. There is the capacity piece, the 355-ship Navy, that I’m sure you’re very familiar with.

“We caution everybody that 355 is a target,” he continued. “It’s much more important to focus on the sum of the parts to derive from it.” He said that fitting the right capabilities to operational plans and need areas was more important than actually hitting the target number of ships.

Merz is the latest in a long line of 355-ship soft-pedlars, a trend that has continued despite Congress making achieving a 355-ship Navy a matter of national policy as part of the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act. Merz told House lawmakers in March that the Navy was gearing up for a new force structure assessment that would inevitably revise the 355-ship number.

When Mattis was pressed last June about growing the fleet to 355 ships, he said the nation needed a larger fleet but that it was unlikely without three-to-five percent real growth in the defense budget annually. Mattis has made clear that restoring readiness in the force is his number one priority.

Navy Secretary Richard Spencer said in September that the Navy needs to grow, but that the service needed to take a hard look at what capabilities the fleet would need in 15 years. The Navy’s own 30-year shipbuilding plan released in February didn’t get to 355 ships at all, capping out at 342 ships in 2039.

The Navy’s public squirreliness on its own assessment of its needs have started to irk even its staunchest supporters on Capitol Hill.

In a hearing in March, Rep. Rob Wittman, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee’s Seapower subcommittee, said the Navy was missing the mark on its shipbuilding plans.

“Critical shortfalls in aircraft carriers, large-deck [amphibious ships] and attack submarines are debilitating to our national security and only serve to embolden potential adversaries,” Wittman said. “The Navy sometimes misses the strategic imperative and national urgency associated with the message our nation needs to sends to the world when an inadequate shipbuilding budget is proposed.”

What this all boils down to is that 355-ships is not a priority for the current administration, said Bryan McGrath, a retired destroyer skipper and consultant with The FerryBridge Group.

“I continue to believe that a lot of people (myself included) suffered from irrational exuberance when the president’s 350 campaign promise morphed into a 355 ship force structure assessment in late 2016. When people downplay numbers, it is almost always a way to reconcile tight resources. The bottom line is that if 355 were a Secretary Mattis priority, we’d know it. It isn’t, and so it is likely we will continue to see Navy downplay the number.

David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.

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