Of all the complaints Republican members of the House and Senate armed services committees have about President Joe Biden’s proposed $773 billion Pentagon budget for the next fiscal year, perhaps the most vexing is the anemic shipbuilding program that would actually cut the number of ships in the Navy’s fleet for the next few years.
Since December of 2017, when then-President Donald Trump signed the annual defense authorization bill, the goal of building a modern 355-ship Navy has been national policy, mandated by law. But the latest budget request from the Biden administration not only fails to advance that goal, but it takes a big step back, proposing to build only nine new battle force ships (or eight, if you discount one ship that was actually approved in a prior budget) while decommissioning 24 ships, including one that’s only 2 years old.
“I'm not a mathematician, but it seems like, to me, you can't do addition by subtraction,” said Republican Rep. Rob Wittman of Virginia at an April 5 budget hearing. “This seems to be grossly irresponsible and completely denies the reality of what we are facing.”
Most Republicans, and some Democrats, too, see the United States falling dangerously behind China, which by sheer numbers has the largest naval fleet in the world, according to the Pentagon’s latest report on Chinese military power. China’s fleet already numbers 355 surface ships and submarines and is “engaged in a robust shipbuilding program” that is expected to enlarge its overall battle force to 420 ships by 2025 and 460 ships by 2030. In contrast, the U.S. Navy has seen its fleet shrink from 318 ships 20 years ago to 297 today, and under the Biden plan, that number would sink to 280 by 2027.
“I have a hard time figuring out how the trajectory of China going in this direction and the trajectory of the United States going in the opposite direction — it's almost impossible to make an argument to say that we're going to build enough capability in nine ships to displace the Chinese and that nine ships are going to be able to replace the capacity and capability in 24 ships,” Wittman said.
“The Navy's done, I think, some really quality analysis,” said Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, defending the ship cuts in his congressional testimony. “They are divesting of ships that are of marginal utility in a future combat environment against China and investing in the nine ships that do have great quality.”
It’s not just about numbers, Milley argued. It’s about capability. China’s navy may be numerically greater than America’s, but he said the U.S. Navy is vastly more capable.
“The ships that we're retiring, the two dozen ships that are coming out of the inventory in this particular budget, the Navy has assessed have very high maintenance costs, high to sustain, and the cost is exceeding the benefit of those ships staying on active duty,” Milley said. “And the nine ships that we're procuring, the capability of those ships is the most modern in the fleet.”
While money is always a problem — the Navy said its plans to scuttle two dozen ships would save $3.6 billion over five years — the service is also trying to pull out of a downward spiral caused by years of flawed acquisition practices, mistaken assumptions about maritime strategy, and ballooning maintenance costs for increasingly high-tech, bug-prone systems.
The poster child for shipbuilding gone awry is the sad saga of the Freedom-class littoral combat ships, derided for years by critics as the “Little Crappy Ship.” The Navy’s high hopes for what was supposed to be speedy, versatile patrol vessels with plug-and-play combat modules for an array of missions have turned into an embarrassing waste of $4.5 billion.
The oldest Freedom-class LCS is a mere 10 years old, while the newest, the USS St. Louis, was commissioned in 2020. Now the nine modern warships will be scrapped — unless they can be sold to Taiwan or some other ally willing to put up with the high maintenance costs and poor performance.
“The Navy owes a public apology to American taxpayers for wasting tens of billions of dollars on ships they now say serve no purpose,” tweeted Rep. Elaine Luria, a Virginia Democrat and retired Navy commander who served as a nuclear-trained surface warfare officer over her two-decade career.
In addition to the nine LCSs, the Navy wants also wants to mothball five Ticonderoga-class cruisers, two Los Angeles-class fast attack submarines, four amphibious landing ships, two amphibious support ships, and two oilers. Two of the ships pegged for the scrapyard are undergoing modernization, and 11 are less than 10 years old.
The overall Navy strategy is aimed at saving money now in order to fund a future fleet of smaller, high-tech ships, including robot vessels run by artificial intelligence. The problem is that the planned replacements, such as the new Light Amphibious Warship, are still on the drawing board and won’t be procured for years.
“The bottom line is this budget sends China and other potential adversaries the wrong message — that we're not willing to do what it takes to defend ourselves and our allies and our partners,” said North Dakota Sen. Kevin Cramer, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Seapower Subcommittee. “It simply doesn't make sense, at least not to me.”
Just over a week ago, the Navy finally delivered its congressionally mandated and long-overdue 30-year shipbuilding plan, which lays out three scenarios, of which only one would meet the 355-ship battle force fleet goal. The first and second options are based on little growth in the Navy’s budget, while the third imagines a steady 2% annual growth funding from now to 2052, testified Vice Adm. Scott Conn, the Navy’s top requirements officer, at an April 26 Senate hearing.
“Each of these profiles, one, two, and three — is the Navy confident that they will allow you to meet the operational requirements necessary to respond to what's the pacing challenge in the pacing theater?” asked Republican Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, referring to China.
“I would say we have the most confidence in alternative three,” Conn replied.
Given that many Democrats also believe the Biden shipbuilding plans are insufficiently ambitious, Congress seemed poised for the second year in a row to add as much as $30 billion to the overall defense budget on a bipartisan basis.
Jamie McIntyre is the Washington Examiner’s senior writer on defense and national security. His morning newsletter, “Jamie McIntyre’s Daily on Defense,” is free and available by email subscription at dailyondefense.com.