WASHINGTON — The US Navy is now building towards a fleet goal of 308 ships, according to the latest 30-year shipbuilding plan — a small evolution from the previously-cited 306-ship target. The two ships added to the fleet total are a 12th LPD 17-class amphibious transport dock and a third Afloat Forward Staging Base (AFSB).

The addition of the LPD and AFSB to the fleet objectives mean the number of amphibious warfare ships has grown from 33 to 34 ships, along with the same growth in the number of support vessels — 33 to 34 ships.

The changes are detailed in the annual 30-year shipbuilding report — formally called the "annual long-range plan for construction of naval vessels" — that was sent to Congress April 2. Prepared by the Navy, the report was signed out to Congress by Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work.

In the report, the Navy continues to take issue with Congress' prohibition in the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) of counting deployed patrol coastal (PC) ships as part of the battle force. "The Navy does not agree with the current NDAA language," the report says, noting that the PCs fulfill specific Congressional requirements for what constitutes a combatant vessel. The prohibition to counting the PCs, the Navy said, is a contradiction to Congress' own language.

Nevertheless, the Navy has returned to the same ship-counting methodology used in the FY 2014 report, removing 10 deployed PCs and the fleet's two hospital ships from the battle force computations.

PDF: Read the Navy's 30-year shipbuilding plan

The addition of the 12th LPD — a ship the Navy did not request but was added by Congress to the 2015 shipbuilding budget — and the modest growth to the 34-ship amphibious force allows the Navy to keep a four-ship amphibious ready group (ARG) forward-deployed to Japan, without, the Navy said, "disrupting the deployment cycles of the remaining ARGs."

The report repeats statements by the Navy and virtually every other Pentagon leader that funding remain stable and the Budget Control Act (BCA) be rescinded.

"There are many ways to balance between force structure, readiness, capability and manpower," the report reads, "but none that Navy has calculated that enable us to confidently execute the current defense strategy within BCA-level funding."

The Navy also again cautioned that the impact of the Ohio Replacement Program to build a new 12-ship class of strategic ballistic missile submarines will present challenges throughout the ORP's procurement period — essentially into the 2030s — and that overall the shipbuilding program could be affected.

The controversial modernization plan to upgrade half the fleet's 22 cruisers remains a point of contention. The Navy notes that under its plan — rejected last year by Congress — the last of the ships would retire in 2045, whereas the Congressional direction adopted in the 2015 defense laws mean the last ship will leave service between 2036 and 2039. The Navy and the Pentagon, the report said, "will continue to work with Congress to implement the Navy's cruiser modernization plans."

The report confirms the Navy will request a ten-ship multi-year procurement (MYP) of DDG 51-class Flight III destroyers beginning in 2018, with a planned total of 27 of the ships that feature the new Air and Missile Defense Radar. A note in the report mentions that procurement of Flight IIIs "may continue … until a follow-on ship has been identified."

Enhanced littoral combat ships (LCSs) procured from 2019 on will be designated as frigates, a decision announced in January. The goal of acquiring a total of 52 LCSs and LCS frigates is reaffirmed. The first of a new class of replacement ships continues to be programmed for 2030.

Beginning in 2019, "at least one" Virginia-class attack submarine incorporating a Virginia Payload Module (VPM) will be purchased each year, a move that accelerates VPM installation two years, from 2021. Virginia-class procurement beginning in 2018 will be under a nine-ship MYP, although every Block V hull might not include the VPM, an 85-foot hull section containing four enlarged payload tubes that will be inserted into the midsection of the submarines. Now built under a two-sub-per-year profile, the plan notes that only one attack submarine will be purchased in those years where an ORP submarine also is requested. A follow-on class to the Virginia submarines is planned for 2034.

Plans remain in place to begin procuring 11 new LX(R) amphibious ships to replace existing LSD landing ship docks in 2020, with serial production beginning in 2022.

The acquisition of several support ships has been delayed a few years — a typical situation in a budget-constrained shipbuilding plan. An ATS salvage ship has been moved from 2017 to 2019, and the lead ship of a new class of T-AGOS surveillance ships delayed from 2020 to 2021. The Navy is considering whether to extend the service life of the five existing T-AGOS ships beyond 30 years.

Procurement of the T-AO(X) fleet oiler continues, however. The first ship is part of the 2016 budget request, and a total of 17 ships is planned.

Production of existing big-deck aviation ships will continue throughout the plan. A new Ford-class aircraft carrier is planned every five years, through 2043, while procurement of amphibious assault ships continues into the 2040s.

Replacement of two of the Navy's most active ships — the fleet flagships Blue Ridge and Mount Whitney — has disappeared from the latest shipbuilding plan, with elimination of last year's forecast replacements in 2032 and 2034. Instead, the report said, the Navy "will look at alternative means to meet the requirements fulfilled by these ships, such as modular systems that can be temporarily installed on an existing ship."

E-mail: ccavas@defensenews.com

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