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Esper Calls for 500-Ship U.S. Navy Fleet by 2045, With Submarines Taking Priority

  • Secretary of Defense Mark Esper envisions 500-ship fleet capable of maintaining naval superiority over China by 2045
  • Plan gives priority to submarines, including recommendation of ramping up construction of Virginia-class attack submarines
  • Rep. Joe Courtney of Connecticut criticizes Trump Administration for previous cuts to shipbuilding program, urges restoration of funding for second sub in 2021

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has called for the U.S. Navy to increase the size of its U.S. Navy fleet by 2045 in order to maintain naval superiority over China. Esper gave priority to the development of submarines, including the new Columbia-class ballistic missile subs and increased development of Virginia-class attack submarines.

Esper said the expansion was a direct response to Chinese efforts to modernize its armed forces by 2035 and “field a world-class military by 2049.” His vision calls for the fleet to reach a long-held target of 355 ships by 2035. There are currently just under 300 ships in the fleet.

The Columbia-class submarine is due to be built in part at Electric Boat in Groton, with 12 boats set to be operational in 2028. Esper says the Navy also needs 70 to 80 attack submarines, starting with the construction of three Virginia-class subs a year as soon as possible.

Rep. Joe Courtney, the Democratic congressman whose district includes Electric Boat, said in a statement that he led a push for three Virginia-class submarines a year in 2018 but that this expenditure was opposed by the Trump Administration. Noting its elimination of funds for a second Virginia-class submarine in the 2021 budget, Courtney criticized the Administration’s shipbuilding budget as “anemic” and urged Esper to support the House’s authorization and funding levels for a second sub.

Other defense organizations have also urged a ramp-up in attack submarine production, noting that the number of attack subs in the fleet is expected to fall over the next several years as Los Angeles-class boats are retired at a faster pace than Virginia-class subs are being built.

Esper’s overall vision calls for an increase in unmanned ships and smaller surface vessels with less priority given to aircraft carriers and large surface ships. He said funding for increased shipbuilding could be derived from congressional budgets, reforms such as divestment from outdated and lower priority systems, and statutory authority to direct unspent Navy funds to shipbuilding.


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