President Trump visited Newport News at the beginning of March to deliver a speech aboard the soon-to-be commissioned USS Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier. It provided a timely reminder of his campaign pledge that he would increase the size of the fleet from the current figure of 272 to 350 ships over the next three decades. This is significantly more than the Obama-era plans to increase the fleet to 308 ships.
How this decision fits with any broader grand strategy is unclear. Critics have debated whether Trump has one. Indeed, a recent New York Times story suggested the growth of the military may simply be for the purpose of possessing raw military power rather than part of any serious strategizing.
Trump’s decision to focus on building a more powerful global Navy, however, fits with a longstanding American strategic tradition. It dates back to naval officer and historian Alfred Thayer Mahan’s classic “The Influence of Seapower on History,” which was written on the cusp of America’s emergence as a global power at the end of the 19th century. In Mahan’s vision, a great Navy would promote America’s commercial interests at home and abroad. It was, and for many still is, the foundation of any “grand strategy.”
But a key question remains: Does Trump’s specified goal of 350 ships meet the needs of the nation in the 21st century? How does this fit into a strategic vision for U.S. security?