WASHINGTON — Just about everybody in and around the U.S. Navy agrees there is a pressing need to build a bigger fleet. Just about nobody agrees on a way to get there.

It's not yet clear what the overall goal will be — 355 ships, the latest figure put forth by the Navy to grow from today's 308-ship fleet target — or the Trump administration's oft-stated 350-ship fleet. No one knows how much the new fleet will cost because there have been no decisions on the new force's makeup — how many submarines, aircraft carriers, big-deck amphibious ships, destroyers and the like will be needed.

No decisions have been reached on how or what to change from existing plans that all date from the previous presidential administration. No one is yet sure what those in power want — what their priorities are, what directions they want to take to reach yet-to-be-determined goals, even who the real players are. Some of those presupposed key players have yet to be named or nominated, much less put in office. There are no timelines yet for reaching any of those conclusions.

No one knows precisely what will be in the next budget because, for one, the Pentagon is still working on the fiscal 2018 budget which won't be sent to Congress until mid-May, and secondly, Congress, trapped in a seemingly endless inability to pass timely defense budgets, still hasn't finished work on the 2017 budget or moved on the 2017 supplemental requests. It's hard to figure what to ask for next year when you don't know what you're going to get this year — but that's what the Defense Department is dealing with. 

The 2018 budget submission in May should also include details of the future years defense program, the near-term plan for what the Navy intends to do in each procurement program. In conjunction with the budget, a new 30-year shipbuilding fleet plan should also be submitted detailing the way ahead through 2038.

To determine its direction, the Navy is working through a variety of documents and efforts. The new Force Structure Assessment, completed in December, contains the 355-ship figure. Three fleet architecture studies, performed at the direction of Congress, use different approaches to build the future Navy. None will be officially adopted, although Adm. John Richardson, chief of naval operations, has said elements of each study could be incorporated into official plans. Other, less-prominent studies are being carried out.

But while budget deadlines loom, it is unlikely significant changes will appear right away, as many of the decision makers that routinely influence the process have yet to make their wishes known or are even in place. There is no permanent secretary of the Navy, not even a nominee, and acting secretary Sean Stackley has been spending most of his time studying how to reorganize the Pentagon's office of acquisitions, technology and logistics (AT&L) — also a major player in budget determinations. A number of observers think Stackley, the Navy's long-serving assistant secretary for research, development and acquisition, could move over to the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) and take over the AT&L post. 

New Defense Secretary James Mattis has yet to make his thoughts public on what he sees as the way ahead for the Navy. Whether he has many specific ideas for the Navy at this point is not clear, but many inside the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill are waiting to find out — in large part because Ash Carter, Mattis' predecessor, played a major role in recent years in shaping several key Navy programs, notably in the littoral combat ship (LCS) program.

Another key Pentagon player, the Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation organization (CAPE), is also still forming up, as is the office of Operational Test and Evaluation (OT&E). Both offices have had a significant impact on Navy programs in recent years, particularly in support of Carter's decisions to curtail LCS production and force the Navy to move to a multi-mission frigate variant.

With Carter and former Navy Secretary Ray Mabus gone and Stackley in a sort of between-status, Richardson remains as the key player determining the Navy's immediate future. But, befitting his prior service as a submariner and the head of Naval Nuclear Reactors, he is clearly a champion of the fleet's submarine programs, Richardson has held his cards somewhat close to the vest regarding what changes in direction he could effect in other shipbuilding programs — or even what he would advocate for or against.  

While there is much talk about expanding Navy shipbuilding and no shortage of opinions on what kind of ships to buy, the reality is a number of restrictions limit options for the immediate and near future, regardless what anyone might want. The White House's skinny budget released in mid-March contains no shipbuilding details and proposes only a modest three percent rise in defense spending for 2018. And the Budget Control Act restricting overall spending continues as the law of the land — and it is not at all clear when, or if, the BCA will be repealed. So it would seem the Navy is unlikely to be showered with new funding anytime soon.

Outside funding questions, the shipbuilding industrial base is, for the most part, not in a great position to expand to meet ramped-up demands. A case in point is the submarine establishment, struggling its way to handle the doubling of the yearly attack submarine construction rate from one to two ships even as it is challenged to ramp up and take on production of the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine. The first new boomer is to be procured in 2021, but much development and design work remains before that will happen. The Navy wants to continue buying two Virginias per year even as the Columbias enter production, but it will be a stretch, to say the least. Any move to four subs per year is far off, if at all. 

Surface combatants large and small comprise the largest element of today's fleet, comprising a third of all ships. The large surface combatants now being built are Arleigh Burke-class destroyers. The Navy will soon commission its 63rd Burke-class ship, more than a dozen more are under contract at roughly $1.7 billion apiece, and a contract soon will be signed to begin construction of the latest Flight III variant, an enlarged Burke fitted with the new Air Missile Defense Radar. One of the building yards, General Dynamics Bath Iron Works, is working its way out of numerous problems and is not in a position to ramp up production. Competitor Huntington Ingalls Shipbuilding is in a better place, actively campaigning to build more destroyers and amphibious ships whenever increased funding comes through.

By far the greatest shipbuilding controversy has centered on the small surface combatant, where OSD and the Navy – particularly Mabus – butted heads for several years on the program's future. Prior defense secretaries Chuck Hagel and Carter sought in succession to end LCS procurement, move to frigate variants of each of the two designs in production, or move to a single frigate variant. Starting in January 2014, when Hagel first ordered the frigate to be developed, the LCS and frigate programs have gone through virtually annual changes to accommodate new directives. 

Officially, the Navy plans to end LCS procurement and choose a single frigate design in 2019 – and there is pressure from OSD, the Navy and Congress to move that forward to 2018. Both industry teams, Lockheed Martin and Austal USA, long have been working to anticipate the Navy's frigate design requirements — even as those requirements have fluctuated — and the service has been funding research and development work. But a formal request for proposal (RFP) for the frigate is scheduled for September, and the responses are unlikely to be delivered much before the end of calendar year 2018. 

But the cumulative effect of the nearly constant changes in direction have set the program back more than is publicly acknowledged, a number of sources said. For example, if both frigate designs are going to be built, a high degree of commonality needs to exist between the two. If only one design is chosen, commonality is not as important, simplifying each team's task. The current direction is for a down-select to a single design. 

The simple truth is a down-select is highly unlikely. The primary drivers for continuing to build both variants are 1) political pressure in Congress, where there will certainly be strong opposition from whichever builder is left out of a single-source frigate program, and 2) any move to eliminate one of the shipyards would cut in half frigate shipbuilding production, imposing a significant setback in the larger move to grow the fleet — a retrograde move unlikely to find favor on the Hill or in the White House.

The frigate program itself is in some jeopardy. There is virtually no chance the ship could happen in 2018, and the annual change in executive management's requirements have made 2019 problematic. More likely, 2020 is a more realistic goal — or even later, giving the new Pentagon leadership more time to evaluate the situation and decide if the project is what is wanted. 

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The Navy can't even define — really — what it wants in a new small surface combatant. While it has responded to the need to justify OSD's directives, there has been no gap analysis performed for a new frigate — a comprehensive look at what capability gap exists, followed by an analysis of alternatives on how to fill that gap. There is no shortage of opinion regarding smaller combatants to be built, but reality is that, aside from the LCS-derived frigate, any other design, including adapting an existing foreign ship, would take many years to develop and cost far more. 

The irony is that the Navy's best choice to expand its fleet sooner rather than later is to continue building the ships so many opponents want to dump — rightly or wrongly. 

The issue will become how soon the establishment faces up to that reality and puts solid, consistent effort into making the ships as effective as possible.