The Pentagon will re-evaluate a plan to grow the US fleet to 355 ships, a move that experts worry could diminish the service’s presence as Iran poses a renewed challenge to Middle East waterways through proxy groups.
Speaking at the Pentagon earlier this month, the Navy’s top officer said that the decision, which will be paired with the US administration’s new budget, was made to align the maritime service’s mission with the Defense Department’s new strategy that focuses on China and Russia.
“In light of the new National Defense Strategy and changes in the security environment since that was put out, we’re doing a new force structure assessment,” Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson told reporters. “We’ll see where that goes.”
The Navy currently has 288 deployable ships, about a third of which are currently deployed overseas, and has typically kept two of its three forward-deployed aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf, according to a recent study by Chatham House. The US Fifth Fleet, based in Manama, Bahrain, houses about 7,000 American troops.
Experts say the effort to limit the expansion of the force is the first sign that the service may mean the Navy will be less capable to cover global missions, potentially calling into question its Middle East deployments as US troops are set to leave Syria.
“The 355-ship Navy wasn’t something that was made up out of whole cloth. It was studied extensively,” said John Miller, a retired three-star admiral who led US Naval Forces Central Command until 2015. “We back off that number at our own peril.”
Though Navy leaders have hinted at their frustrations with the goal both publicly and privately for months, a fresh service recommendation cautioning against the 355-ship number could anger Trump and defense hawks in Congress. Republicans have long called for a larger fleet to help the service meet its requirements. “We caution everybody that 355 is a target,” Vice Adm. William Merz told a conference last year.
Trump first pledged to expand the Navy to 350 ships in a national security speech in Philadelphia in September 2016. And Congress, led by Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., the former chairman of a defense panel subcommittee for seapower, passed the 355-ship goal into law in the fiscal year 2018 US Defense Authorization bill.
“Wicker and the Republicans made it the law of the land and they’re not going to move away from that quickly,” said Jerry Hendrix, a retired US Navy captain and vice president with the Telemus Group, a Virginia-based defense consultancy. The Navy, he said, “wants this [force structure assessment] because they appear eager to have the flexibility to move away from 355.”
But preserving a smaller fleet could challenge US efforts to project power in the Middle East, experts say. Dating back to the Jimmy Carter administration, the United States has pledged to use military force to protect the free flow of maritime trade through from the Persian Gulf, the hub for 30% of the world’s oil traffic, according to the US Energy Information Administration.
The US intelligence community’s threat assessment released last month indicated that dangerous interactions with the Iranian navy “have been less frequent during the past year.” But those activities “could resume should Iran seek to project an image of strength” in light of the Trump administration’s renewal of oil sanctions against Tehran, the report said.
Though dangerous interactions appear to have decreased, Iran continues to fire warning shots near US vessels and presents challenges to navigation in the Red Sea. In December, Iranian ships fired rockets in waters patrolled by a US carrier strike group, just months after the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps navy fired off a short-range anti-ship missile in test exercises in the Gulf.
“You counter that with a credible military presence,” said Miller, the former Navy commander in the Gulf. “You have to be present to do that.”
The Navy’s decision to walk away from the 355-ship target, though mostly done in public, appears to have flown under Trump’s radar. But even as the president is distracted by other priorities, the move could anger the commander in chief.
“I am not sure the president is aware of the degree to which the Navy leadership team is hedging on 355,” said Hendrix. “In fact, I keep waiting for the day he realizes that and begins tweeting about it.”