George Washington recognized early in our nation’s history the importance of a strong Navy, saying, “Without a decisive naval force we can do nothing definitive, and with it, everything honorable and glorious.” Thankfully, our leaders at the time heeded his wise advice. Since the nation’s founding, the Navy has provided invaluable national security.
Over time, the threats this nation faced changed and expanded in scope. A snapshot of the current global threat environment is daunting. In the Pacific, North Korea’s belligerent actions and China’s expansionism threaten regional stability. In the Middle East, Iran continues to assert itself both through its Revolutionary Guard naval forces and its sponsorship of terror groups such as the Houthi rebels in Yemen. And Russia, through its actions in the Baltic and Black seas and operations in the undersea domain, clearly seeks to again project itself as a major player in Europe and beyond. The urgent need to deter and when necessary meet these threats is as real today as it was in the time of Washington.
Today’s Navy, however, is insufficient to address these growing challenges. We must build the Navy to 355 ships so it can deter our adversaries, support our allies, and respond to threats and humanitarian crises around the world. As chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces, I will make this a major priority during the 115th Congress and as we begin work on the annual defense authorization.
To achieve the goal of a 355-ship Navy and to prepare our Navy for its next critical moment in our history, we must focus on three objectives: develop a sound naval strategy and establish the requirements of the fleet; provide a budget that supports the strategy; and ensure the industrial base’s viability to support shipbuilding and ship maintenance.
Develop a Sound Naval Strategy & Establish the Requirements of the Fleet
To maximize the fighting capability of every ship in the fleet, we must embrace the distributed lethality concept and incorporate offensive weapons on all platforms. During the Reagan buildup, the Navy reached a fleet of 594 ships. Twenty years ago, we had 450 ships in the fleet. Today, we have 276. While the number of ships has fallen, the number of deployed ships—approximately 100—supporting operational demands in a complex global threat environment has remained about the same. This operational tempo puts undue stress on sailors, equipment, and the maintenance community because we are in fact asking them to do the same job with less.
While a nearly 600-ship fleet is unattainable, with the proper investment and strategy, we can maximize the utility of a 355-ship fleet. Our strategy-driven budget should provide for a fleet that is agile, modular, and most important of all, lethal.
Over the past two decades we have seen unprecedented use of our fleet, which has resulted in unprecedented wear and tear. We flew our aircraft past their expected service lives, deferred maintenance availabilities on our surface ships, and, most recently, backlogged submarine maintenance. Beyond recapitalizing our fleet of nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), attack submarines (SSNs), and aircraft carriers (CVNs), we need to modernize and properly repair all ships currently in the inventory. Our 355-ship fleet is dependent on ensuring every ship reaches her expected service life.
Another component of getting the most out of our ships is the Navy’s initiative in reinvigorating all its warfare development centers (WDCs). WDCs are designed to develop new tactics, techniques, and procedures that will be integrated in each of the warfare communities. The WDCs are vital in updating antiquated Navy tactics—some of which have not been touched since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. Integration of all platforms and their respective weapon systems is necessary to get the full value out of our naval assets, to include future integration of unmanned systems.
Provide a Budget that Supports the Strategy
The Budget Control Act (BCA) and subsequent defense sequester have limited our armed forces in the areas of equipment modernization, maintenance, and training. Put plainly, achieving a 355-ship Navy becomes nearly impossible without repeal of the BCA. When top military leaders come before the full Armed Services Committee or the Seapower Subcommittee, this is the message they deliver. They also remind us that while we have been forced to cut defense spending, the global security environment has become more volatile and complex. To meet the challenges we face around the world, we must boost the defense budget.
While the administration’s fiscal year 2018 budget proposal does increase the base defense budget, the modest increase may not provide adequate funding to restore our military’s readiness and could lead to a situation where we are letting budgets dictate our strategy. We must identify the threats and challenges we face and provide the resources necessary to meet them. The $640 billion in base funding is what we need to ensure we can deter adversaries, support allies, and protect the homeland.
According to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO), building a 355-ship Navy over the course of several decades will cost around $800 billion. While that may seem a daunting number, it actually takes an additional investment of only $5-6 billion per year over current funding levels to achieve the number of ships the nation needs. We can do that, but it must be a priority. The current budget proposal, in comparison to last year’s, actually cuts shipbuilding funding. I will be working with my colleagues to increase that account, signaling to industry that Congress is committed to growing the Navy.
Ensure the Industrial Base’s Viability to Support Shipbuilding and Maintenance
From the outset of my chairmanship, I made it a priority to visit almost all the major private shipyards in the United States to see firsthand the great work being done by our skilled shipbuilders. In addition, I wanted to speak with the industry leaders about the challenges they face, the needs of their workforce, and the prospects for future builds. Those conversations allowed me to update my Armed Services Committee colleagues on what we can expect from the yards and what support the yards need from Congress to build our Navy’s ships and submarines.
Our industrial base has the capacity to expand operations and build more ships. We need to find the “sweet spot” between new shipbuilding and current ship repair. For instance, in the submarine industrial base, we are looking at an almost 50 percent increase in workload as we boost requirements from 48 attack submarines to 66. This requires that in the near future we significantly increase the submarine build rate above our current two per year. That type of increase must be managed well, without cutting corners that may result in construction problems that cause delays in the long term. At the same time, we must keep maintenance availabilities of our current submarines on time so that our Navy remains ready.
The Navy has been, and will continue to be, the tip of the spear in our national defense strategy. But it is critical that we modernize and grow the Navy to ensure it can meet the many challenges and threats the United States faces around the world. Most critically, the Navy needs more ships.
Congressman Wittman chairs the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces. He represents Virginia’s 1st Congressional District.