WASHINGTON — How many submarines does the US Navy need? How many surface warships? How many aircraft carriers? Should they be big, small, medium? What should they do? Do we need different kinds of ships or aircraft? What sorts of formations should they deploy with — or fight with?

First up is the Alternative Carrier study, being undertaken at the request of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Committee chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a vociferous critic of the cost of large carriers like the new Gerald R. Ford, wants the Navy to consider a number of alternative designs, from 40,000-ton ships to flattops much larger than the Ford’s roughly 100,000 tons. Research group Rand Corp. is conducting the study at the Navy’s direction.Those are some of the issues and questions being pondered this spring and summer as the US Navy works through several interlinked efforts to reach a new understanding of where it’s headed over the next several decades.

Then comes the Fleet Architecture study — an effort being carried out by three groups to look at alternatives for how the fleet is put together.

"The Fleet Architecture study may have more what-ifs, like if you went to a different amphibious ready group model or surface action group, you could do this differently," explained a Navy official familiar with the studies. The work, the official added, should be "intellectually free to explore different things."

Ultimately, the Alternative Carrier and Fleet Architecture studies will roll into the Force Structure Assessment (FSA), a periodic effort run by the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations' (CNO) assessment division, N81. The last full FSA was conducted in 2012 and updated in 2014, resulting in, among other things, the goal of a 308-ship Navy. The current effort was begun over a year ago and should be concluded by late summer or early fall, in time to inform the fiscal 2018 budget and the next 30-year shipbuilding plan.

The FSA is what generates force level numbers such as so many littoral combat ships or cruisers, how many aircraft of a particular type is needed, how many units are needed for security cooperation efforts or combat. It takes into account deployment and training cycles, combatant commander requirements and strategic guidance from national command authorities.

"The FSA looks at the demand on Navy force structure, then projects that demand into the future, then asks how many of which kinds of things do we need to meet that demand," the Navy official said. "More like looking to see if we have a requirement of 10 something and is that requirement going to persist. Maybe there's an option to base some of those somethings forward, so that would mean I would need X number, based on various assumptions, Fleet Response Plan cycles. There's still some art to it, but it's not as conceptually broad reaching" as the Fleet Architecture effort.

When the studies are complete, the Navy official said, "N81 will lead a synthesis of what we think we learned. What near-term actions we need to pursue, which items roll into experimentation, which are further out. Depending on their nature the recommendations will go into existing processes and programs."

The Alternative Carrier study was due to Congress on April 1, but CNO Adm. John Richardson rejected the first effort by Rand.

"It was almost complete," the Navy official said, when it was sent to Naval Reactors (NR) for evaluation.

"NR said the two options for big carriers were technically infeasible and not viable," explained the Navy official. "They were very uncomfortable with the technical accuracy of the Rand report. CNO pushed back on the report, and Rand agreed that maybe they didn't have enough physics knowledge. That's why it's not done yet.

"The report had four different carrier design options" — 40,000 tons, 60,000 tons, 80,000 tons and 100,000 tons. Rand initially "said they wouldn't look at the smaller ones because it would involve different CONOPS [concepts of operations], that they wouldn't be achievable in these timelines.

"Then they came up with plans we thought technically infeasible — we can't do the little ones, can't do the big ones, the Ford is the right size. CNO said not good enough."

Richardson kicked the report back to Rand, directing the group to put in more smaller-ship options and explore those options in different contexts. He met with McCain face-to-face to explain the actions, and McCain concurred.

"Rand still owes us a final report," the Navy official said May 5, adding that the final report is expected in late May or early June.

160324-N-DM751-001 BATH, Maine (March 24, 2016) The future guided- missile destroyer USS Zumwalt (DDG 1000) departs the Bath Iron Works shipyard for its second at-sea period to conduct builder's trials, during which many of the ship's key systems and technologies will be demonstrated. In addition to systems testing, the Navy-industry team will be conducting numerous operational demonstrations in preparation for acceptance trials in April. DDG-1000 is the lead ship of the Zumwalt-class destroyers, a class of next-generation multi-mission surface combatants tailored for land attack and littoral dominance with capabilities that defeat current and projected threats. (U.S. Navy photo by Christianne M. Witten/Released)
160324-N-DM751-001 BATH, Maine (March 24, 2016) The future guided- missile destroyer USS Zumwalt (DDG 1000) departs the Bath Iron Works shipyard for its second at-sea period to conduct builder's trials, during which many of the ship's key systems and technologies will be demonstrated. In addition to systems testing, the Navy-industry team will be conducting numerous operational demonstrations in preparation for acceptance trials in April. DDG-1000 is the lead ship of the Zumwalt-class destroyers, a class of next-generation multi-mission surface combatants tailored for land attack and littoral dominance with capabilities that defeat current and projected threats. (U.S. Navy photo by Christianne M. Witten/Released)

The future guided- missile destroyer USS Zumwalt (DDG 1000) departs the Bath Iron Works shipyard in March for its second at-sea period to conduct builder's trials.

Photo Credit: Christianne M. Witten/US Navy

The findings of the Alternative Carrier Study will be passed on to the three groups conducting the Fleet Architecture studies — an OPNAV group under N81, the Mitre Group and the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA).

The Fleet Architecture work, said Bryan Clark, a naval analyst leading the CSBA team, "is supposed to look at alternative views of what the Navy will need in the future. Mix and match carriers, frigates, destroyers in different ways. We'll come up with a different view of the demand signal, the steady state and wartime surge requirements. It'll be based on a different approach to war-fighting requirements."

N81 and the Mitre Group have been at work for about two months on their studies, the Navy official said, while CSBA was awarded a study contract only on May 4. As a result, the first two studies should be ready by midsummer. CSBA is expected to turn in an interim report at that time and a final report about two months later.

The studies are "intended to heavily inform our thinking," the Navy official said, but a public release strategy for the three efforts hasn't been determined.

"You'll see the broad brushstrokes in everything we do," the official said. "It's an ongoing conversation with Congress. It will be part of the conversation with the new administration."