WASHINTON — More than two years after the U.S. Navy publicly announced its plan for a new assessment of what its future force should look like, the product of no fewer than three iterations will soon be briefed to the defense secretary, a senior Defense Department official said Thursday.

But the ultimate product will actually be based on three products, and more war gaming and analysis is expected, Deputy Secretary of Defense David Norquist told a virtual audience at the annual Defense News Conference.

“Earlier this year the secretary asked me to lead a future naval forces study,” Norquist said. "With participation by the Navy, Marine Corps, Joint Staff, OSD [the Office of the Secretary of Defense] and outside advisers, we built three different future fleets. We examined ships and Marine units we have, and those we might build in 2045. We looked at their cost and analytical capabilities, and we war gamed different combinations of ships and maritime forces against different future missions and challenges.

“This morning I received the latest inputs from the study participants, and next week I’ll meet with the secretary to go over our findings, which will inform our future investments and exercises and war gaming.”

The odyssey of the Navy force structure assessment dates back to at least September 2018, when then-Navy requirements boss Vice Adm. William Merz told the audience at that years' Defense News Conference the service planned to launch a new force structure assessment to update the December 2016 force structure assessment that set the Navy’s goal of creating a 355-ship fleet.

At that point. the 355-ship force structure assessment had been in effect for less than two years.

The Navy’s previous force structure assessment, released in March 2015, had set the goal at 308 ships and was in effect for about 18 months. As of Sept. 10, 2020, the Navy has 296 deployable ships, according to its website.

At the time of Merz' announcement, he said the new force structure assessment would be completed “some time” in 2019. But with the ascendance of Gen. David Berger to the position of commandant of the Marine Corps, along with his vision of a more closely aligned Navy and Marine Corps, the Navy realized it would need to revise its forthcoming force structure assessment to accommodate that vision.

That gave rise to the “integrated naval force structure assessment,” which was designed to integrate Marine Corps requirements and Navy requirements.

But by the beginning of this year, Defense Secretary Mark Esper signaled in an interview with Defense News that he wanted to take control of the work being put into the Navy’s future force needs, saying: “DoD will run this.”

Esper had told Defense News that the Pentagon’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office as well as the Navy will conduct a series of war games and exercises in the coming months to figure out a way forward.

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

After reviewing the Navy’s Integrated Force Structure Assessment, Esper deliberately put it on ice and the related 30-year shipbuilding plan from Congress, according to a June report from USNI News. That plan is required annually by law.

Instead, Esper launched his own study in concert with several offices and the Navy, the Department of Defense told USNI News in a statement.

“This review, the Future Naval Force Study, is a collaborative OSD, Joint Staff and Department of the Navy effort to assess future naval force structure options and inform future naval force structure decisions and the 30-year shipbuilding plan,” the statement read.

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

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