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By 2045, One-Third of U.S. Navy Warships Will Be Robotic ‘Ghost Ships’

The service plans to expand to 523 warships—and 150 of them won’t have a single sailor onboard.

U.S. NAVY PHOTO BY MASS COMMUNICATION SPECIALIST 2ND CLASS LOGAN C. KELLUMS

In 20 years, nearly one in three U.S. Navy warships will be “ghost ships,” sailing the seven seas without a human crew. That’s according to the service’s latest fleet study, released earlier this week, which recommends a fleet of 373 manned ships and 150 unmanned warships by 2045 in an attempt to preserve global dominance in the face of a growing Chinese navy. The service also wants another aircraft carrier, more destroyers, and a boost in the number of frigates and submarines.

The analysis, “Chief of Naval Operations Navigation Plan 2022” (NAVPLAN), represents a considerable growth of the U.S. battle fleet, as first reported by U.S. Naval Institute News. For context, the Navy currently operates 300 battle force ships, defined as “warships capable of contributing to combat operations, or a United States Naval Ship that contributes directly to Navy warfighting or support missions.” That number of ships is the highest in 20 years, after sinking to a post-Cold War low of 275 in 2015. Under NAVPLAN, the U.S. Navy would operate 523 warships in its battle fleet.

Fujian, China’s latest aircraft carrier, commissioned in June 2022. China has built three aircraft carriers in the last ten years, while the United States has only built one.

The Navy has been spurred to action by the rise of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), which has risen from a “green water” fleet, mostly concerned with protecting China’s coastline, to a true blue water force capable of projecting naval power worldwide. The 2021 Pentagon report on China describes the PLAN as including “355 ships and submarines, including approximately more than 145 major surface combatants.” China’s massive shipbuilding program, the largest in the postwar era, means that even this year-old estimate is likely considerably out of date.

The U.S. Navy is a global force that must prepare for conflict on several fronts, from Yemen to Russia. While the Chinese navy must prepare to beat the U.S. Navy and its allies in the western Pacific, the U.S. Navy must prepare for a war with China and another war, potentially on the other side of the planet, simultaneously.

Some highlights of the 523-ship fleet plan include:

-Twelve carriers, or one more than the current fleet. The U.S. Navy wants an additional carrier, likely based on the West Coast. This could be accomplished by keeping an older Nimitz-class carrier in service longer than planned, while continuing to build more new Ford-class carriers, and building an extra ship when it becomes financially viable. It’s also possible this 12-ship fleet includes smaller, non-nuclear powered carriers.

USS Kidd, Howard, and Shoup, three of the approximately 70 Arleigh Burke-class destroyers in Navy service. The Navy continues to build more ships of the class—the first was commissioned in 1988.

-Ninety-six “large surface combatants,” or two more than the current fleet. These ships would act as bodyguards for aircraft carriers and large amphibious ships, and operate independently. The current fleet consists of 22 Ticonderoga-class cruisers, 70 Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, and one Zumwalt-class destroyer, but the cruisers are old and won’t make it to 2045. The new DDG(X) destroyer, if it gets built, will likely fill that role. DDG(X) won’t start construction until 2028, and the idea of the Navy building 24 of the ships by 2045 is a stretch at best. Fortunately, the Navy can always build more Arleigh Burke destroyers, the most successful warship design of the last half-century.