US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper announced an ambitious plan to expand the US Navy with a range of unmanned and autonomous ships, submarines and aircraft to meet China’s growing maritime challenge.
The Pentagon chief said a comprehensive review of U.S. naval power, dubbed Future Forward, presented a game-changing plan that would expand the U.S. maritime fleet to more than 355 ships, up from 293 currently.
The plan, which requires adding tens of billions of dollars to the US Navy’s budget by 2045, aims to maintain superiority over Chinese naval forces, seen as the main threat to the United States.
The future fleet will be more balanced in its ability to produce deadly effects from the air, from the sea and under the sea, Esper said in a speech Wednesday to the Rand Corporation in California.
The expansion will add more and more smaller surface ships as well as more submarines, surface and underground ships that are eventually manned, unmanned and autonomous, and a wide range of on-board unmanned aircraft.
The plan targets a fleet of ships better able to survive high-intensity conflict, project US power and presence, and launch precision strikes over very long distances, he said.
One example, Esper added, is a new guided missile frigate program, producing ships with increased lethality, survivability, capacity and ability to wage distributed warfare.
He also said tests were underway on the Sea Hunter, a 132-foot (40-meter) trimaran drone capable of autonomously surveying seas for rival submarines for more than two months at a time.
These efforts are the next step in the realization of our future fleet, one in which unmanned systems perform a variety of combat functions, from distributing deadly gunfire and laying mines, to resupply or surveillance of the enemy, Esper said.
It will be a major change in the way we wage naval warfare in the years and decades to come.
Esper reiterated that China is the main threat to US security and that the Indo-Pacific region is the US military’s priority theater.
Not only is this region important because it is a hub of trade and world commerce, but it is also the epicenter of great power competition with China, he said.
A Pentagon report on the People’s Liberation Army released earlier this month said Beijing has the world’s largest naval fleet with 350 ships and submarines.
Yet, Esper pointed out, the Chinese navy is lagging behind in strength and capability.
Even if we stopped building new ships, it would take the PRC [Peoples Republic of China] years to match our capabilities on the high seas.
Esper said meeting the 355 ship target meant the Navy would have to seize a larger percentage of the Pentagon’s budget, but also that the United States needed to devote more resources to expanding and modernizing the shipyards, where China has a clear advantage.
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