Instead of countering China, US Navy plans another ‘rebuilding year’
9 Jun 2021|

In late April, President Joe Biden reiterated his pledge to bring an end to American complacency on the world stage. ‘We are in competition with China and other countries to win the 21st century,’ he told a joint session of Congress. ‘We have to compete more strenuously.’ A month later, the Biden administration submitted the fiscal year 2022 budget request for the Department of Defense to Congress. Biden’s tough talk did not prompt a comparably bold budget for America’s military.

Countering a great-power competitor like China demands a revitalised and robust American naval force. The FY22 request, which apportions the navy 22.9% of the total defence budget—or US$163.9 billion—does not guarantee such a force. Bottom line up front: the Biden administration wants the US Navy to do more—defending allied territorial claims in the South China Sea, deterring a Chinese invasion of Taiwan and maintaining freedom of navigation—with less.

Of course, the allocation of funds—not just their total sum—also determines a budget’s efficacy. But this metric raises red flags too. In FY22, the navy proposed a procurement spending decrease of 5.7% in order to fund a 3.4% increase in operation and maintenance, a 3.5% increase in personnel, a 12.4% increase in research and development and a 13.9% increase in infrastructure accounts. According to the Pentagon’s budget request, this shift in priorities reflects the navy’s desire to ‘innovate and modernize the force while maintaining and enhancing readiness and people-focused programs’.

At first glance, the allocations make fiscal and strategic sense. Like professional American sports teams that trade star players for young upstarts to ensure future victories, the US Navy is undergoing a ‘rebuilding year’. Axing legacy systems and ships that are incompatible with a threat environment marked by great-power competition frees up cash to bolster R&D for new technologies that could deliver ‘new, warfighting advantages to our forces, including artificial intelligence, hypersonic technology, and cyber capabilities’. A decade of procurement delays, shortfalls and design errors warrants a doubling-down on R&D to ensure the navy builds future ships, aircraft, weapons and other assets without debilitating postponements or problems.

Rabidly robbing procurement to pay maintenance, readiness and research, however, cannot continue being the US Navy’s budgetary blend indefinitely. FY22’s proposed procurement will only fund eight new ships—half the number China plans to build in the same year. Such meagre production (coupled with the planned retirement of 15 other ships) will once again keep the US Navy at 296 ships and halt any plans to expand the fleet. This dangerous proclivity to sacrifice procurement for other priorities is beginning to contravene and undermine long-term strategic planning.

Following the 2018 national defence strategy’s reorientation towards great-power competition, the US Navy devised a new operational principle, known as ‘distributed lethality’, which focuses on ‘increasing the offensive and defensive capability of individual warships, employing them in dispersed formations across a wide expanse of geography, and generating distributed fires’. Currently, the navy’s small fleet of highly capable assets lacks the strength, mobility and firepower to execute this strategy. That’s why it desires a bigger, ‘more agile and distributed’ fleet with more unmanned or smaller platforms and fewer large, expensive platforms. To achieve this vision, the navy set a 355-ship goal by the 2030s, which became law under the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act. Four years later, Defense Secretary Mark Esper expanded that ambition by releasing his own plan, calling for more than 500 manned and unmanned vessels by 2045.

Despite the navy’s penchant for rebuilding, procuring ‘eight ships a year is not going to get to 355’, as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Budget John Gumbleton admitted. The navy needs to recapitalise procurement at 10 ships per year to satisfy that benchmark, let alone Esper’s plan. This wouldn’t be an issue if FY22’s shipbuilding projections were an anomaly. But they’re not.

Last year, the navy also requested eight ships after reducing shipbuilding procurement by 17% to reinvest in operations, maintenance and R&D. Sound familiar? FY21 was another rebuilding year.

At some point, the US Navy is going to have to stop rebuilding and start building, competing and winning. Unfortunately, there is no timetable for that shift to occur. The Pentagon released this year’s budget without the usual five-year plan (called the Future Years Defense Program or FYDP), despite the executive branch being required by law ‘to submit a 30-year shipbuilding plan each year in conjunction with its annual budget submission’. When asked where FY22 savings would go,  Gumbleton said it would be ‘decided’ in the next budget. Without a long-term projection from the Biden administration on the force’s future size, the navy will have even less impetus to increase procurement spending. The fulfilment of long-term strategic ambitions rarely pairs well with short-term planning.

The Pentagon’s request, however, is just a request. Congress revises presidential budgets before enacting them. With its renowned ‘power of the purse’, Congress should increase the navy’s budget to fund more shipbuilding in FY22, including another Flight III Arleigh Burke–class destroyer (which the navy said it could not afford) and more Constellation-class frigates and unmanned vessels. It also must set a deadline for the Biden administration to release the long-term plan (or FYDP) to grow the fleet to 355 ships by the early 2030s, which Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michael Gilday still considered ‘a really good target’ in April. Rebuilding to develop the tools for a highly capable naval force is important, but so is building and deploying that force.

Biden is right. The US must ‘compete more strenuously’ in this century. But the navy’s FY22 budget request isn’t just uncompetitive, it’s insufficient.