John Keegan published The Price of Admiralty in 1990, discussing how naval power made a difference in several major sea battles and campaigns. At the core of the book was the cost. Naval power is expensive and only major powers can afford what naval power - Admiralty - provides. Over the past decades, only the United States has attempted to maintain a large fleet. The United Kingdom gave up, France gave up, and Russia gave up. Only China is making noises about increasing its Navy.
USNI News published an article about the cost of the new Zumwalt class destroyer. Previously known as the DDG-1000 class, this three ship class of super-destroyers is costing the Navy more than it anticipated and, likely, more than it can afford. Originally budgeted to cost $1.4 billion, it ultimately cost $3.5 billion.
As a result, the rest of the shipbuilding program is going to suffer.
Forget Reagan's 600 ship Navy. Forget the smaller Navies anticipated in later years. Right now the U.S. Navy has about 285 ships, depending on who one consults. Assuming a 30 year ship life (which is about right for aircraft carriers but long for the smaller ships) that means the Navy must average completing at least 9.5 ships per year just to maintain size. Only 4-6 ships are planned to be commissioned over the next two or three years. The Navy has asked for funding of ten ships in the next budget, but even that can barely keep up. Bottom line - given a zero growth budget, more expensive ships mean fewer ships being built and a smaller Navy.
The likelihood of an increased ship-building budget is small. Given the current national budgetary constraints, the only way to increase ship-building is to take money from other programs, and that will likely mean reducing personnel or to severely reduce the budget of the other services. Assuming the makeup of Congress does not significantly change over the next few elections (a good assumption -even if the Republicans take over the Senate in 2014), the probability of severe reductions in Army or Air Force budgets is unlikely.
So, what does all this really mean? Assuming the United States wants to maintain an ability to move significant combat power around the globe - an assumption we support - it will take a Navy of significant size - probably on the order of at least 300, depending on the mix. To maintain the Navy at 300 ships will require at least ten ships per year (probably more). Given the budget constraints already discussed, those ships must be less expensive than they are now or the goal is unachievable. If it is unachieveable, then the U.S. must find a different grand strategy than current envisioned.