WASHINGTON — The chief of naval operations has updated his strategic vision for the U.S. Navy to tie it more directly to the Pentagon’s National Defense Strategy, in the hopes of making it more likely to be funded and implemented.

Adm. Mike Gilday’s updated Navigation Plan 2022 stresses similar priorities to his original January 2021 document: using emerging technologies to create a network of naval sensors and shooters that can counter China, the top long-term strategic threat.

But it reframes the role of the service, arguing the Navy is uniquely positioned to conduct aspects of the Pentagon’s 2022 National Defense Strategy and that his modernization priorities would directly support the direction of the NDS.

The updated National Defense Strategy remains classified, but a fact sheet lays out three priorities: integrated deterrence, or coordinating military, diplomatic and economic levers from across the U.S. government to deter an adversary from taking an aggressive action; ‘campaigning forward’ to build up the capability of international coalitions and complicate adversaries’ actions; and building enduring advantages through investing in the right technologies and people.

“Particularly when the [defense] secretary talks about campaigning as the means to the ends — the ends being integrated deterrence — and so with respect to campaigning, the value of a navy is the forward presence, it is keeping those sea lanes open, it is protecting those [sea lines of communication] for the free movement of trade,” Gilday said during a call with reporters Tuesday.

“As the secretary discusses campaigning and how it’s intended to not only compete with China in the gray zone, if you will, but also put us in a position of advantage should the nation need us in a pinch quickly, I think [the Navy’s persistent at-sea presence] absolutely plays to the new NDS in a powerful way,” he added.

That focus on being forward for day-to-day campaigning activities will require a larger fleet, Gilday has previously told Defense News, with more money to support manpower and training and maintenance — which is where the rub is, as the Navy has struggled to receive a larger portion of the budget from the Pentagon. Congress has been willing to add funding in each year for a few ships beyond what’s in the Pentagon- and White House-approved budget request, but these ad hoc additions make it tougher to grow the force in a predictable manner.

The future force design

Unlike the original navigation plan, the updated document includes a Force Design 2045 plan, a vision of the future fleet that mirrors what Gilday has called for in other recent documents.

It calls for 12 Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines as the undersea nuclear deterrent, 12 aircraft carriers, 66 attack submarines and large payload submarines, 96 large combatants such as destroyers, 56 small combatants such as littoral combat ships and frigates, 31 traditional amphibious ships, 18 light amphibious warships, about 150 unmanned surface and undersea vessels, 82 logistics and auxiliary ships, and a sophisticated blend of manned and unmanned aircraft to complement the fleet.

He said the full details behind his future fleet design are classified, but “the why behind the composition and the size is grounded on how we’re going to fight.

“In short, it is our intent to face any adversary with our forces spread out, with our effects masked, across multiple vectors, both physically and virtually, in all domains from the seabed to space,” Gilday added.

Past efforts to convey these future force design priorities, including the congressionally mandated long-range shipbuilding plan released this spring, have been somewhat lost in translation as the Navy tried to mesh together not just the required force size and composition but also expected budget toplines and predicted industrial base capacity.

Lawmakers panned the 30-year shipbuilding plan, with Navy hawk Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va., saying the service does “not have a strategy that defines actual requirements” for the Navy and Congress to work towards.

Gilday said he hoped his Navigation Plan 2022 would appeal to Congress and to Pentagon leadership and might pave the way for the “3-5% sustained budget growth above actual inflation” needed to sustain his vision. Anything less, he said, would result in a smaller but more capable fleet, vowing to continue prioritizing readiness and modernization over size.

The White House asked for $773 billion in its fiscal 2023 defense spending request this spring, or 4.1% more than the enacted level for FY22 —though inflation eats into much of that. Proponents of defense spending called the topline too small to tackle the growing defense challenges. House and Senate committees working on the FY23 spending plans have added tens of billions of dollars to their plans to achieve a greater bump in defense spending after adjusting for inflation.

Gilday said he is eyeing a 2045 timeline to achieve his force design goals, though that could be accelerated if the Pentagon and Congress were to fund Navy priorities faster and help stabilize the defense industrial base.

“I’m being realistic: we don’t have the capacity in the industrial base to pump out that number of ships in a short period of time,” he said. “It’s going to take a couple of decades really to deliver, to mature the fleet in a manner where you get that composition that you’re looking for over time.”

Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.

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