WASHINGTON – An internal Office of the Secretary of Defense assessment calls for the Navy to cut two aircraft carriers from its fleet, freeze the large surface combatant fleet of destroyers and cruisers around current levels and add dozens of unmanned or lightly manned ships to the inventory, according to documents obtained by Defense News.

The study calls for a fleet of nine carriers, down from the current fleet of 11, and for 65 unmanned or lightly manned surface vessels. The study calls for a surface force of between 80 and 90 large surface combatants, and an increase in the number of small surface combatants – between 55 and 70, which is substantially more than the Navy currently operates.

The assessment is part of an ongoing DoD-wide review of Navy force structure and seem to echo what Defense Secretary Mark Esper has been saying for months: the Defense Department wants to begin de-emphasizing aircraft carriers as the centerpiece of the Navy's force projection and put more emphasis on unmanned technologies that can be more easily sacrificed in a conflict and can achieve their missions more affordably.

A DoD spokesperson declined to comment on the force structure assessment.

"We will not comment on a DoD product that is pre-decisional,” said Navy Capt. Brook DeWalt.

The Navy is also working on its own force structure assessment that is slated to be closely aligned with the Marine Corps’ stated desire to become more closely integrated with the Navy.

Cutting two aircraft carriers would permanently change the way the Navy approaches presence around the globe and force the service to rethink its model for projecting power across the globe, said Jerry Hendrix, a retired Navy captain and analyst with the Telemus Group.

“The deployment models we set – and we’re still keeping – were developed around 15 carriers so that would all fall apart,” Hendrix said, referring to standing carrier presence requirements in the Middle East and Asia-Pacific. “This would be reintroducing reality. A move like this would signal a new pattern for the Navy’s deployments that moves away from presence and moves towards surge and exercise as a model for carrier employment.”

A surge model would remove standing requirements for carriers and would mean that the regional combatant commanders would get carriers when they are available or when they are needed in an emergency.

With 9 carriers, the Navy would have between six and seven available at any given time with one in its mid-life refueling and overhaul and one or two in significant maintenance periods. The net result would be significantly fewer carrier deployments in each calendar year.

The assessment reducing the overall number of carriers also suggests that the OSD study didn’t revamp the Carrier Air Wing to make it more relevant, Hendrix said.

Esper has taken a keen interest in Navy force structure, telling Defense News in March that he had directed the Pentagon’s Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE), along with the Navy, to conduct a series of war games and exercises in the coming months in order to figure out the way forward toward a lighter Navy, but said any major decisions will be based around the completion of a new joint war plan for the whole department, which the secretary said should be finished this summer.

“I think once we go through this process with the future fleet — that’ll really be the new foundation, the guiding post,” Esper told Defense News. “It’ll give us the general direction we need to go, and I think that’ll be a big game changer in terms of future fleet, for structure, for the Navy and Marine Corps team.”

When it comes to carriers, Esper said he saw a lot of value in keeping carriers in the force structure, and that it wasn’t going to be an all-or-nothing decision.

“This discussion often comes down to a binary: Is it zero or 12?” Esper said. “First of all, I don't know. I think carriers are very important. I think they demonstrate American power, American prestige. They get people's attention. They are a great deterrent. They give us great capability.”

The carriers Dwight D. Eisenhower and Harry S. Truman in the Arabian Sea March 18. (Photo: Navy)
The carriers Dwight D. Eisenhower and Harry S. Truman in the Arabian Sea March 18. (Photo: Navy)

Revamped Surface Fleet

The OSD assessment also calls for essentially freezing the size of the large surface combatant fleet. There are about 90 cruisers and destroyers in the fleet: the study recommended retaining at least 80 but keeping about as many as the Navy currently operates at the high end.

The Navy’s small surface combatant program is essentially the 20 littoral combat ships in commission today, with another 15 under contract, as well as the 20 next-generation frigates, which would get to the minimum number in the assessment of 55 small combatants, with the additional 15 presumably being more frigates.

The big change comes in the small unmanned or lightly manned surface combatants. In his interview with Defense News, Esper said the Navy needed to focus integrating those technologies into the fleet.

“What we have to tease out is, what does that future fleet look like?” Esper said. “I think one of the ways you get there quickly is moving toward lightly manned [ships], which over time can be unmanned.

“We can go with lightly manned ships, get them out there. You can build them so they’re optionally manned and then, depending on the scenario or the technology, at some point in time they can go unmanned.

“To me that's where we need to push. We need to push much more aggressively. That would allow us to get our numbers up quickly, and I believe that we can get to 355, if not higher, by 2030.”

The Navy is currently developing a family of unmanned surface vessels that are intended to increase the offensive punch for less money, while increasing the number of targets the Chinese military would have to locate in a fight.

That’s a push that earned the endorsement of the Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday in comments late last year.

“I know that the future fleet has to include a mix of unmanned,” Gilday said. “We can’t continue to wrap $2 billion ships around 96 missile tubes in the numbers we need to fight in a distributed way, against a potential adversary that is producing capability and platforms at a very high rate of speed. We have to change the way we are thinking.”

Aaron Mehta contributed to this report from Washington.