The US secretary of defence, Mark Esper, has announced an ambitious plan to expand the US Navy with a range of unmanned and autonomous ships, submarines and aircraft to confront the growing maritime challenge from China.
The Pentagon chief said a sweeping review of US naval power dubbed “Future Forward” had laid out a “game-changer” plan that would expand the US sea fleet to more than 355 ships, from the current 293.
The plan, which requires adding tens of billions of dollars to the US Navy’s budget between now and 2045, is aimed at maintaining superiority over Chinese naval forces, seen as the primary threat to the United States.
“The future fleet will be more balanced in its ability to deliver lethal effects from the air, from the sea, and from under the sea,” Esper said in a speech at the Rand Corporation in California on Wednesday.
The expansion will add “more and smaller” surface ships as well as more submarines, surface and subsurface vessels that are optionally manned, unmanned and autonomous, and a broad range of unmanned carrier-based aircraft.
The plan is for a fleet of ships more able to survive a high-intensity conflict, to project US power and presence, and to deliver precision strikes at very long distances, he said.
An example, Esper added, is a new guided missile frigate program, producing ships with “increased lethality, survivability, capability and capacity to conduct distributed warfare.”
He also said trials were underway on the Sea Hunter, a 132ft (40-meter) trimaran drone that can autonomously survey the seas for rival submarines for more than two months at a time.
“These efforts are the next step in realising our future fleet, one in which unmanned systems perform a variety of war-fighting functions, from delivering lethal fire and laying mines, to conducting resupply or surveilling the enemy,” Esper said.
“This will be a major shift in how we will conduct naval warfare in the years and decades to come.”
Esper reiterated that China is the top US security threat and that the Indo-Pacific region is the “priority theatre” for the US military.
“Not only is this region important because it is a hub of global trade and commerce, it is also the epicentre of great power competition with China,” he said.
A Pentagon report on the People’s Liberation Army released early this month said Beijing had the world’s largest naval fleet with 350 ships and submarines.
Still, Esper stressed, the Chinese navy lags in strength and capability.
“Even if we stopped building new ships, it would take the PRC [People’s Republic of China] years to match our capability on the high seas.”
Esper said reaching the goal of 355 ships meant the navy would have to grab a larger percentage of the Pentagon budget, but also that the US has to put more resources into expanding and modernising shipyards, where China has a clear advantage.
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