WASHINGTON — Acting U.S. Navy Secretary Thomas Modly in public comments and in a directive to the force has mandated that the service find a path to quickly get to 355 ships.

Despite some soft-pedaling from Navy leadership on the 355-ship goal, Modly has made it clear that such an inventory is national policy and that he wants leadership to get behind it.

“[Three hundred and fifty-five ships] is stated as national policy,” Modly told an audience at the USNI Defense Forum on Dec. 5. “It was also the president’s goal during the election. We have a goal of 355, we don’t have a plan for 355. 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?”

In a memo released Thursday to the force, Modly said he wanted an actionable plan by the end of the 2020s.

In the memo, Modly called for the services to develop “an integrated plan to achieve … 355 ships (or more) unmanned underwater vehicles, and unmanned surface vehicles for greater naval power within 10 years.”

The push toward the 355-ship fleet, which kicked off after a 2016 force-structure assessment, has been on shaky ground of late, with former Navy Secretary Richard Spencer calling it “aspirational.” Last year, the service’s former top requirements officer told an audience at the Navy’s largest annual conference that people should focus more on capabilities and less on the number.

The issue is that the Navy is required by law to pursue a 355-ship Navy, something that was the focus of House and Senate lawmakers early on in the Trump administration. The fleet currently stands at 292 ships.

During his comments at the USNI Defense Forum, Modly said that if the Navy must fight the other services for money to achieve that goal, then that’s what it should do.

“We ought to be lobbying for that and making a case for it and arguing in the halls of the Pentagon for a bigger share of the budget if that’s what is required,” Modly said. “But we have to come to a very clear determination as to what [355 ships] means, and all the equipment we need to support that.

“How many more hypersonics are we going to need? Where are we going to put them? These are long-term investments that we will have to make, but we have to get our story straight first. So I’m going to focus a lot on that this year.”

Modly’s comments and his Dec. 6 directive got a boost from President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, the following day at the Reagan National Defense Forum. O’Brien told the audience there that Trump meant business when he called for a larger Navy during the 2016 campaign.

“When President Trump says a 350-ship Navy, he means a 350-ship Navy, and not decades from now,” O’Brien said.

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

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