President Donald Trump and Navy leaders say the nation needs about 350 ships, roughly 75 more ships than the fleet has today.
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While there isn't money in the defense budget to buy a lot of new ships at once and they take years to build, Adm. John Richardson, the chief of naval operations, said in May the increase in naval power cannot be “some distant goal decades in the future. The Navy must get to work now to both build more ships, and to … innovate – as we go.”
One way Adm. Richardson says they could get to the target faster is by counting unmanned vessels with capabilities similar to a manned ship— a new twist on the definition of a ship.
Unmanned undersea vehicles currently used by the Navy aren't at the point now where they could replace manned platforms. Richardson brought senior officers to Newport, Rhode Island, this month to talk about accelerating their development.
"I can guarantee that it's not going to be building more of the same thing we have right now," he said. "Because that will not be the Navy that the nation needs to secure itself and promote its prosperity."
Richardson said he's trying to figure out how to increase naval power as quickly as he can because the Navy is being challenged at sea by very capable foreign naval forces. He said he's looking at vehicles that can do a range of things, including acting as sensors and carrying weapons, and can be networked in with the rest of the fleet.
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At the Naval Undersea Warfare Center Division Newport, researchers are adapting commercial, off-the-shelf unmanned undersea vehicles for use by the military.
Dozens of unmanned undersea vehicles are being used by the Navy to sense oceanographic conditions and look for mines, with supervision by Navy personnel, said Jenny Roberts, the deputy for undersea influence at the Navy's Undersea Warfare Division.
Technological advancements in autonomy, endurance, command and control and other areas are needed before the Navy could assign anything more complex, like surveillance, she added.
The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the cost of building and operating 355 ships would average $102 billion annually through 2047, which is more than one-third higher than the amount appropriated for fiscal year 2016 for today's fleet. Richardson has said that he thinks it'll cost far less than that prediction.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.