There has been a lot of talk about building a fleet of 350 or more ships to restore American strength in the world. This has naturally provoked debate over what kind of ships to build, but the discussion is missing something important. A clear description of what the newly expanded fleet will do, and some notion of the roles and missions that the fleet will fulfill, should shape the conversation about what to build. Earlier this year the acting secretary of the Navy made clear that any increase in funding would be directed toward adding a handful of ships to existing (“hot”) ship construction lines. More recently there have been indications that any increase in shipbuilding will have to wait until at least 2018, probably 2019, and may be quite modest. Reactions to both developments have revolved around considerations of cost and acquisition risk, as well as the protection of the Navy’s industrial base. While these are reasonable criteria for judging a shipbuilding plan, they are not sufficient. The future fleet must respond to the emerging international security environment and trends in the behavior and capabilities of American competitors and enemies.
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