National Security

Navy adding ships again, will hit 300 by 2019, outgoing chief says

The Navy’s littoral combat ship USS Fort Worth, the first vessel to be named after the Texas city.
The Navy’s littoral combat ship USS Fort Worth, the first vessel to be named after the Texas city. AP

The U.S. Navy has reversed the decline in its once-shrinking fleet, but the growth may not be fast enough to satisfy Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, who’s made the number of naval ships on the high seas a campaign issue.

The number of U.S. ships hit a low of 278 in 2008 but will rise to more than 300 by 2019, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said Wednesday.

“We’ll get to our current assessed need of 308 ships by 2021,” Mabus said.

Mabus made the tally in a speech at the National Press Club in Washington summarizing his seven years on the job, the longest tenure of any Navy secretary since World War I.

It came on a day that underscored the dangerous role of the Navy around the world. Rebels in Yemen fired what U.S. officials described as a cruise missile Wednesday at a Navy destroyer, the USS Mason. The missile didn’t hit the ship, the Pentagon said.

It was the second time this week that Houthi rebels in Yemen had targeted a U.S. Navy vessel. Stratfor, an Austin, Texas-based global risk analysis firm, said the rebel missile was “likely the Chinese designed C-802 or an Iranian equivalent,” capable of flying at near Mach 1 speed.

Trump has made the size of the fleet a talking point in his campaign.

“We will build a Navy of 350 surface ships and submarines as recommended by the bipartisan National Defense Panel. We right now only have 276 ships and it’s not enough,” Trump said in Philadelphia on Sept. 7 in a policy speech about his proposed defense posture.

The Obama administration has tried to remove the Navy’s 22 cruisers from service, Trump said, “then refused to modernize these very old, aging, aging ships. They’re old. They’re tired.”

Trump has declined to say how he’ll pay for the fleet expansion while lowering taxes.

Mabus, a former governor of Mississippi, said he occasionally heard criticism of his focus on expanding the fleet, which he rejected. “We’re the Navy. We need ships,” he said

“In the seven years I’ve been here, we’ve put 86 ships under contract,” Mabus said. “It takes a long time to reverse the consequences of a shrinking fleet.”

The fleet expansion since 2009 has added 8,000 jobs at U.S. shipyards, he said.

“In April 2014, we awarded the biggest contract the Navy has ever awarded, $18 billion for 10 Virginia-class attack submarines,” Mabus said. “Now these submarines cost $2 billion apiece. This is doing math in public but we paid for nine, we got 10.

“It’s like having one of those punch cards: Buy nine subs, get your 10th one free.”

Dramatic strides by rival nations in the cyber realm have been a wake-up call for the Navy, Mabus said: “We had become too dependent on networks, on cyber. I think we’ve taken steps to correct that. . . . We’re dealing with it.”

Turning to personnel, Mabus said the Navy had become more flexible in its policies and better able to retain recruits by improving the work environment, expanding educational opportunities, extending paid maternity leave, making career paths more flexible and offering increased coverage for illnesses such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

“We’ve revamped physical fitness tests to make them more aligned with the jobs they do,” Mabus said.

Since the 2011 repeal of the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy banning openly gay service members, Mabus said, the Navy has felt little effect.

“It’s been the biggest ‘nothing’ I’ve ever seen. Just nothing,” Mabus said. “It’s just the same as when we ended segregation.”

Tim Johnson: 202-383-6028, @timjohnson4