WASHINGTON, D.C. – The biggest barrier to adding more ships to the Navy is industrial base capacity, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday said Thursday.
The service’s top officer said shipbuilders need indicators from the service before they’re able to make the investments required to build, for example, three destroyers per year.
“We have an industrial capacity that’s limited. In other words, we can only get so many ships off the production line a year. My goal would be to optimize those production lines for destroyers, for frigates, for amphibious ships, for the light amphibious ships, for supply ships,” Gilday said at a Heritage Foundation event.
“We need to give a signal to industry that we need to get to three destroyers a year, instead of 1.5, that we need to maintain two submarines a year. And so part of this is on us to give them a clear set of – a clear aim point so they can plan a work force and infrastructure that’s going to be able to meet the demand. But again, no industry is going to make those kinds of investments unless we give them a higher degree of confidence.”
Asked by USNI News after the event if the reason the Navy isn’t ready to send that signal to industry is because of funding, Gilday said, “it depends on the class of ships. Sometimes it’s affordability. Sometimes it’s industrial capacity.”
The Navy in its Fiscal Year 2023 budget submission projected buying two Arleigh Burke-class destroyers per year between FY 2023 and FY 2027. But Congress is pushing for a 10-ship buy across that same time period with options for five more destroyers, amounting to three destroyers per year.
While Gilday has pointed to capacity as a hurdle to growing the fleet, two U.S. shipyards have already made significant infrastructure investments that could set them up to build more ships. Austal USA recently built a new steel line and is interested in the second line for the Constellation-class frigate. HII’s Ingalls Shipbuilding, which builds some of the destroyers, has spent nearly $1 billion over the last five years to modernize its Pascagoula, Miss., yard, USNI News recently reported. Bath Iron Works, the other yard that builds the destroyers, is still facing a backlog of work that was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Gilday’s 2022 Navigation Plan, released last month, calls for 373 manned ships and about 150 unmanned surface and underwater vehicles by 2045.
As for unmanned, Gilday said that when he assumed top job, he viewed the Navy’s pursuit of those platforms the same way he viewed traditional acquisition programs, which typically span years and take significant research and development. The service’s unmanned efforts have to move faster, he argued.
“We’ve changed the construct. We’ve changed the framework in terms of our development of unmanned capabilities,” Gilday said.
The CNO pointed to the Task Force 59 effort operating in the Middle East that has tested numerous contractor-owned vessels and unmanned air assets with allies and partners.
“With unmanned technologies that are out there, we’ve developed a DevOps kind of environment with [an] unmanned task force in the Pentagon that’s closely connected to Task Force 59, which operates out of Bahrain,” he said. “And that task force is operating with six or seven different countries as a team right now to increase maritime domain awareness using unmanned in the air and on the sea. Our goal is to have 100 networked unmanned platforms operating together, tied together in a mesh network that delivers an understanding of what’s afloat out there – whether it’s in the Red Sea or the Arabian Gulf.”
The goal is to have those 100 unmanned platforms, most of which Gilday said would belong to allies and partners, by the summer of 2023.
“If we take a look at the Red Sea, the Red Sea’s about the size of the state of California. On any given day, we may have four or five coalition ships that are operating in that water space. Think about five patrol cars trying to secure the state of California,” he said. “And then think about the power of unmanned and what that capability gives you in terms of sensing and then understanding at the tactical edge, in these operation centers, and our partner nations leveraging AI.”
For unmanned, Gilday emphasized the importance of the artificial intelligence software integration over the physical asset.
“So if I drew a parallel to Tesla who’s a digital native in the automotive industry, there’s plenty of platforms out there – Volkswagen, Ford, a number of companies have their platform. The secret sauce is that AI software” piece, he said.
“And we don’t have to have the same company that develops both of these. It’s a very competitive environment. Small companies are making the magic plugin that we can change out very quickly,” Gilday added. “So we’re trying to field capabilities, unmanned capabilities, in this Fiscal Year Defense Plan, within three to five years. Actually we’re fielding it now. It’s also informing, this progress is informing some of our bigger programs like large and medium unmanned [surface vehicles] that we would hope to scale later on in this decade.”
After the event, Gilday told USNI News that Task Force 59 will continue its unmanned exercises, but said the U.S. is trying to more regularly integrate unmanned platforms into its fleet operations.
“We’re folding in unmanned to fleet battle problems, we’re doing it with deploying strike groups,” he said. “We’re just trying to make it more something that we’re doing routinely rather than just having a separate exercise.”