It was originally posted elsewhere last week, but the editor of that site feared retribution from their sponsors and pulled it down shortly after it was posted.
I offered to post it here, and Bryan accepted the offer.
President Trump has made a large increase in the size of the Navy the centerpiece of his promise to rebuild American military strength, telling audiences on the campaign trail that he would grow the Navy from its current size of 276 deployable battle force ships to 350, to include growing the carrier fleet from 11 to 12 hulls.
Scheduled to speak at the July 22nd commissioning ceremony for the USS GERALD R FORD (CVN 78) (a ship he had considerable criticism for earlier this year), it is conceivable that he will renew his call for this expanded fleet. This is music to the ears of naval advocates who believe American Seapower occupies a unique place among the components of American military power in its capacity to advance the nation’s prosperity and security.
The enthusiasm for Trump’s naval buildup was somewhat dampened with the release of his FY18 budget, which did not grow the Navy appreciably over the levels described in his predecessor’s final budget. There was no shortage of criticism of the President for this seeming reversal of a campaign promise, but as I wrote elsewhere, there was wisdom in using the FY17 budget amendment and the FY18 budget submission to shore up anemic readiness and weapons procurement accounts before beginning what would be an expensive, decades long project to grow the Navy by 25%. Secretary of Defense Mattis’ statement of priorities upon assuming office made this emphasis clear.
I am no longer sanguine about the prospects for a 350 ship Navy, and I base my view on the uninspiring testimony yesterday of Richard Spencer, appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee as the Trump Administration Secretary of the Navy nominee. Spencer was presented with the opportunity to voice full-throated advocacy for the fleet called for by the Commander-in-Chief and buttressed by a recent Navy Force Structure Assessment calling for 355 ships. Instead, he waffled, sounding very much like those in the Obama Administration who argued against a larger fleet, telling the SASC “What I will tell you is that, whether it’s a 355-ship or not, what we also want to get our head around is, can we have a capacity number, but have a capability that’s even greater than that, so have the capability of a 355 that might be a 300-ship Navy.”
This debate between naval capacity (numbers) and capability (i.e. weapons, sensors, and networking) is evergreen, and every responsible administration must wrestle with it. Resources are not unbounded, and the right mix between numbers and capability is the ultimate aim of Navy budgeteers. But for a Secretary of the Navy nominee—given the gift of Presidential imprimatur upon a vast naval buildup—to make his public debut by questioning the wisdom of such a buildup, something is amiss. That something is, I fear, the Secretary of Defense.
Tucked into Mattis’ statement of priorities linked-to above, is a section in which he points to an ongoing strategic review (the 2018 National Defense Strategy) that will provide a new force sizing methodology to be used to shape the growing force. Presumably, the National Defense Strategy will be used to impact the FY19 defense budget process later this year, to include broad guidance on where additional resources are to be prioritized. Putting it another way, if there were going to be a significant naval buildup, it would be reflected in the strategic narrative advanced by the Secretary of Defense and then codified in the FY19 budget submission.
That Secretary of the Navy nominee Richard Spencer did not get behind the President’s goal appears to indicate lukewarm support for it within the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD), especially if it means re-allocating resources from other parts of the Department. Given the ongoing budget stalemate on the Hill, this would appear to be the only way the Navy would get a significant budget increase. And since Spencer is known to be close to Secretary Mattis (but not particularly close to the Trump inner circle) it is not difficult to envision Mattis providing Spencer with clear direction not to enthusiastically ratify the President’s naval buildup, in order to retain sufficient freedom of maneuver while the strategic review is underway.
A military buildup the size of what Trump called for on the campaign trail would be very expensive. I calculate the annual cost to build, man, maintain, and operate a fleet the size the President desires to exceed $40B a year in FY17 dollars. Trump also wishes an increase in the size of the Army and a stepped up program of fighter procurement for the Air Force. These increases would dramatically raise the defense budget, something the President simply does not possess the political capital to accomplish. Contributing to this lack of political capital is the administration’s seeming inability to frame policy and then harness the Congressional majority to achieve it. Mattis sees this, and I suspect he realizes that there will be no significant buildup, although there will be a modest boost to the DoD topline.
This bleak outlook for increased defense spending leaves Mattis in very much the same position as his predecessor Ash Carter was, in which expensive programs designed to increase capacity (including shipbuilding) were sacrificed to fund what were considered higher priority needs such as offensive weapons, networking capabilities, cyber capability, and electronic warfare upgrades. This is a reasonable position to take in a severely restricted budget environment, but Trump campaigned on ending that environment to rebuild the military. Success in achieving this goal was always a long-shot, but with the President’s ongoing weakness, it is virtually unachievable. I suspect the Secretary of Defense is aware of this.
Given the theory I have advanced, what can navalists hope for?
First, it is clear that the operating forces can expect better operations and maintenance funding, enabling ships and aircraft to gain the proficiency they need through at sea and on-range training even as their accumulated maintenance backlogs are worked through.
Second, I expect there to be significantly higher investment in increasing the capability of the platforms we already have by fielding more and more capable weapons and sensors, and then backfitting them into the current fleet.
Third, I expect the Navy’s shipbuilding program to increase fleet size at a gradual pace, with much of the growth planned for 10-30 years from now, when future administrations will have to figure out how to pay for it.
The prospect of a dramatic naval building program was fun while it lasted, but the reality of our modern political milieu has intervened. Unless the Congress steps up and takes control of the naval building effort—in spite of what the Secretary of Defense may desire—we are in for at least four more years of muddling through.
Bryan McGrath is the Managing Director of The FerryBridge Group LLC, and the Assistant Director of the Hudson Institute Center for American Seapower.
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