Russia’s aggressive and intolerable invasion of Ukraine serves as a wakeup call for the United States. Russian leader Vladimir Putin invaded a free and independent democracy on the threshold of the NATO alliance. Each passing day of Russian attacks on Ukraine, and Moscow’s requests for Chinese military aid, require the United States to take a hard and clear look at the eroding deterrent value of its conventional forces—not only in Europe, but around the world. As the Biden administration prepares to release its National Defense Strategy, nuclear posture review and missile defense review, along with a delayed budget request for fiscal year 2023, the White House must acknowledge that we are at a turning point in world history. Our adversaries have unequivocally demonstrated their willingness to violate the territorial integrity of another state. We must ensure our allies and partners know U.S. promises are ironclad—the United States will defend the rules-based international system and the peace and prosperity it has generated around the world.
Investments in national defense must reflect a sober commitment to uphold U.S international obligations, counter malign efforts of our opponents, and secure a safer world for future generations. As the United States shores up the strength of the U.S. military for a degrading security environment, Congress is uniquely charged under Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution to “provide and maintain a Navy.” In this new era, our ability to project power across and under the seas must be unquestioned. The U.S. cannot afford fuzzy and ever-shifting naval shipbuilding plans that suffer during execution. The defense budget request for FY23 must be accompanied by a future years defense program and a 30-year shipbuilding plan that demonstrate a simultaneously ambitious—and realistic—approach to maintaining the primacy of U.S. naval forces.
Strategic Competition Will Not Wait for the Future Fleet
Congress has not received a true 30-year shipbuilding plan from the Department of Defense in two years. In December 2020, the Trump administration released what was termed Battle Force 2045, more formally known as the Report to Congress on the Long-Range Plan for Construction of Naval Vessels. The plan was notable for two reasons. First, it broke with the findings of the Navy’s 2016 force structure assessment that advised building a future fleet of 355 battle force ships. Instead, Battle Force 2045 set a goal of 403 battle force ships by FY45, and was estimated by the Congressional Budget Office to cost a little more than $1.0 trillion in 2021 dollars over 30 years. Second, the plan was released as President Trump left office, so the Biden administration was free to make changes. Yet, the Navy’s subsequent shipbuilding plan for FY22 protested that studies were ongoing, failed to provide a 30-year plan, and instead proposed potential ranges of between 321 and 372 total battle force ships—not including unmanned vessels. As neither plan has proven durable—or adequate in the case of the FY22 document—the Navy’s true goals remain unclear.
It is difficult to overstate the ramifications of DoD’s blatant willingness to shirk this responsibility. Congress is forced to make funding decisions for the Navy and Marine Corps with incomplete information about how the Sea Services intend to meet the challenges of their future operating environments. America’s shipbuilding defense industrial base and its workforce—including welders, engineers, pipefitters, and many others—are plunged into years of uncertainty. Our allies and partners are left to draw their own conclusions about our commitment to addressing shared strategic concerns. Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro’s belief that Congress is amenable to ranges of ships in the 30-year shipbuilding plan is a fallacy and embraces the current failure to define clear requirements. Last year’s one-year “30-year” shipbuilding submission proposed a range of ships that only pushes Congress to race to the lowest common denominator and accept the bare minimum number of ships. This pattern is untenable.
Our adversaries do not suffer from any such lack of clarity. DoD’s annual report to Congress—Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China—laid out the CCP’s shipbuilding prowess in no uncertain terms. While the United States debates how and if to build a fleet of 355 vessels, China has already secured that inventory, making the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) the largest in the world. Further, per the report, “the PLAN’s overall battle force is expected to grow to 420 ships by 2025 and 460 ships by 2030,” with fleet growth largely driven by additional major surface combatants. DoD estimates also suggest that China will develop a ballistic missile submarine force capable of holding the United States at risk by 2030 with a mix of roughly eight Type 094 and improved Type 096 nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarines.
China’s naval modernization poses a grave threat to the ability of the U.S. Navy to secure control of blue-water ocean in the western Pacific during a potential crisis. The window to tighten such disparities with China is closing rapidly. Last year, the outgoing and current commanders of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, Admirals Philip Davidson and John Aquilino, testified that China could try to resolve its dispute with Taiwan using military force by 2027. Admiral Davidson’s assessment was sobering: “Taiwan is clearly one of [China’s] ambitions. . . . And I think the threat is manifest during this decade, in fact in the next six years.” Inescapably, quantity has a quality of its own, and China has secured the lead.
The responses from the White House to date, however, reflect neither urgency nor vision. In the absence of a real China strategy or National Defense Strategy—and with no meaningful changes made in the recent Global Posture Review—the Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific Strategy references security as an afterthought, with the fourth line of effort for the region listed as “bolster[ing] Indo-Pacific security.” More broadly, the administration explained that the “decisive decade before us will determine if the region can confront and address climate change, reveal how the world rebuilds from a once-in-a-century pandemic, and decide whether we can sustain the principles of openness, transparency, and inclusivity that have fueled the region’s success.” But these tenets miss the most consequential and immediate threat facing the Indo-Pacific—China’s alarming military buildup and its threat to the independence of Taiwan and freedom of the seas in the western Pacific.
As harbinger of tests to come, China consistently demonstrates its willingness to violate Taiwan’s sovereignty. In a span of just four days this past October, Taiwan reported 148 Chinese planes had flown in its air defense identification zone (ADIZ). And just one day after China’s foreign ministry said that Taiwan is “not Ukraine,” nine Chinese aircraft flew into Taiwan’s ADIZ. China is also telegraphing its global ambitions beyond the Indo-Pacific via efforts including the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Through the BRI, China finances development projects in partner nations, but those nations often become unavoidably indebted to China as a result. Djibouti, for example, is burdened by significant debt to China as a result of bilateral economic and infrastructural agreements, and provided China with its first overseas military base at the entrance of the Red Sea—a choke point for major international shipping lanes.
Fortunately, some U.S. defense leaders recognize the challenge despite the clear, although unstated gap, between the White House and Defense Department. Recently, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Affairs Ely Ratner explicitly told Congress: “With China as the pacing challenge, Taiwan is the pacing scenario, driven by a strategy of denial.” With this supposed urgency of planning should come seriousness of intent, tangible changes to posture, notable increases in investment, imaginative shifts in concepts, and finally, longer-term certainty for the U.S. Navy and its shipbuilding industrial base in the form of clear and concrete ship-construction plans.
The United States can deliberate no longer; now is the time for action. China is rapidly expanding its fleet; it has developed long-range missiles to hold foundational components of U.S. strength, including carrier strike groups and forward bases, at risk, increasing the complexity of U.S. and allied security challenges in the region. The People’s Liberation Army counts on continued American indecisiveness. We must prove them wrong. Congress can provide weight to the Biden administration’s underwhelming Indo-Pacific Strategy by turning words into actions. The aspirational fleet of Battle Force 2045 should not be abandoned. Concrete steps are required in the short-term to shore up the U.S. shipbuilding industrial base for future growth. The United States can achieve these goals by investing rapidly to expand the capacity and capabilities of its naval ships and facilities over the next five years and beyond to hold China’s navy at risk.
The Imperative of Strategy-Based Budgeting
Renewed commitments to American sea power cannot come soon enough. The Navy’s current fleet of approximately 297 battle force ships does not match operational requirements. Indeed, the Navy maintains a forward presence of roughly 100 ships at sea, resulting in an operational tempo of roughly 28 percent, or “nearly double the [operational tempo] that characterized the Cold War.” Requirements for forward naval presence will not abate as China’s assertiveness grows. Without substantial investments in more ships with improved capabilities, the Navy will be strained further as more wear and tear is placed on each hull. This equation is well known, and the Navy has tried to grow its fleet since 2016 as a result. Recognition of the problem and subsequent insufficient action, however, only makes DoD’s recent failures to deliver a workable plan to grow the fleet more disappointing.
More troubling still, the Department of Defense continues to make compounding decisions that do not reflect the urgency of the challenges facing the Navy today, or over the horizon.
Last year, the Navy requested just a single new Arleigh Burke–class destroyer—brazenly demonstrating a willingness to violate its contract obligations without action from Congress. It requested zero additional amphibious ships and proposed the retirement of seven of our largest surface combatants. The firepower of those seven ships alone exceeds that of the entire Royal Navy. While DoD proposed shrinking the fleet and cutting the Navy’s shipbuilding budget, China continues investing in its surface and undersea forces.
Even if the Navy invested in a fleet adequately sized to compete with China, while also meeting the demands of other day-to-day operations around the world, it would still require infrastructure to maintain its ships. The Navy’s shipyard optimization and modernization plan, however, remains under resourced and lacks long-term investment guarantees. This is cause for concern for a host of reasons. The Navy’s four public shipyards must be upgraded to complete work on new ships such as the Ford-class carriers and the newest variant Virginia-class submarines. The Navy’s 2018 pitch for the Shipyard Infrastructure Optimization Program (SIOP) proposed investing more than $20 billion into the public yards, but it relied on opaque cost estimates, such as failing to account for the impact of inflation on the costs of projects beginning in the 2030s. I was proud to support the SHIPYARD Act last year to inject desperately needed funding into the SIOP and other related infrastructure modernization projects for the fleet’s future maintenance needs. This financial commitment to the Navy is absolutely required.
Beyond investing in the infrastructure to maintain an expanded fleet, the Department of the Navy needs sailors and Marines to man the ships it puts to sea. Issues of recruitment and retention persist, leaving the Navy short 5,000 to 6,000 sailors at sea. This skeletal structure is not ready to go head-to-head with China.
Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michael M. Gilday recently affirmed that the Navy needs a fleet of more than 500 ships to meet its commitments to the not-yet-released NDS. I appreciate and commend Admiral Gilday for his willingness to advocate for the naval power America needs. However, he also acknowledged that his judgement is based on the ongoing force structure assessment that will inform the Navy’s budget request for FY24. I am unwilling to accept another year of shipbuilding budgets that underinvest in the Navy while waiting for the results of this latest narrative. Urgency is growing by the hour while the Pentagon continues to fiddle, delay, and obfuscate.
Further, the composition and funding of a fleet exceeding 500 ships requires further examination. Admiral Gilday’s goal of deploying large, unmanned surface vessels alongside aircraft carriers in the next five years must be aggressively operationally tested and proven. Purported reductions in amphibious ship numbers spell uncertainty for the Marine Corps. At the same time, achieving a precipitous expansion of the overall fleet would require shipbuilding budgets not seen since the buildup to a 600-ship fleet in the 1980s. We must show our adversaries that we are serious about how we will fight, not how we could fight—requiring Navy and DoD leaders to transition aspirational statements into operational actions.
Executing Marine Corps Force Design 2030: Opportunities and Pitfalls
A key test of commitment to the future fleet will be demonstrated by how DoD and Congress engage with the ongoing redesign of the Marine Corps.
In his Commandant’s Planning Guidance (CPG) in the summer of 2019, Commandant of the Marine Corps General David H. Berger laid out an instrumental shift in how the Marine Corps will aim to fight in the highly dynamic and distributed future battlefield. Force Design 2030 is a strategy that must be fully embraced by the DoD and Department of the Navy. Increasing future adversaries’ risk calculus by being unpredictable and more maneuverable by executing expeditionary advanced base operations (EABO) is the type of forward thinking that should be encouraged throughout DoD. Gone are the days when U.S. naval forces enjoyed largely uncontested airspace, freedom of movement, and rich logistical infrastructure that enabled them to go where and when they wanted. The future force must be able to operate, sustain itself, and thrive within an adversary’s weapons engagement zone (WEZ).
Although I fully support General Berger’s vision for Force Design 2030, I am deeply concerned with how his plans will come to fruition. The Navy has proven unable or unwilling to support new equipment for the Marine Corps, as demonstrated by the ongoing debate surrounding amphibious vessels. The Light Amphibious Warship (LAW), intended to provide intra-theater mobility, continues to be ignored by the Navy, which undervalues Marine Corps logistics needs. The LAW was designed with the EABO concept in mind by having numerous small maneuver units around the operating theater, moving from island to island. The LAW will fulfill these requirements by embarking and transporting the maneuver elements, but it cannot meet the logistically heavy requirements that only traditional amphibious ships such as the LHAs, LHDs, LPDs, and LSDs can satisfy. Indeed, as the Commandant has said before, the capabilities are complementary. One cannot come at the expense of the other.
Marine Corps Lieutenant General David Furness, recently articulated the momentous necessity of amphibious ships when explaining how combatant commanders (CoComs) need a fleet of 39 amphibious ships to satisfy the Marine expeditionary unit (MEU) deployment requirements—assuming the vessels are maintained at a 63 percent availability rate. The 39 amphibious ships would provide the Navy and Marine Corps team the ability to deploy concurrently from both the east and west coasts in partnership with the Japan-based Forward Deployed Naval Force (FDNF). However, as General Furness writes, “only 31 ships remain in the current inventory. DoD’s proposed FY 2022 budget and the associated shipbuilding plans project a further reduction to the amphibious inventory.” My apprehension is that the DoD and the DoN will not put a premium on maintaining the amphibious ready group (ARG)/MEU construct—diminishing the U.S. ability to rapidly respond to crises around the globe and ultimately damaging the Marine Corps’ ability to execute Force Design 2030. As such, to support the Marine Corps and protect its force structure, I advise mandating a statutory requirement of 31 amphibious ships that would reflect the best military guidance from years of experience, war games, and DoD assessments.
A Navy Budget of Ambition
While the challenges before our Sea Services are steep, I am confident that America will rise to the occasion. The United States has a legacy of building the world’s most technologically complex and powerful ships. Now is the time to protect that legacy and secure it for the next generation.
To transform our Navy’s shipbuilding plans from aspirational to operational, we must be guided by three key principles:
First, Congress and defense leaders must be aligned on the shipbuilding plan and why those ships must be built. Our force structure—accounting for the construction of new ships and the retirement of old hulls—must reinforce fleet strength well before 2027 to convince Beijing it will not be able to subjugate Taiwan by force and demonstrate our commitment to defending a free and open Indo-Pacific. Similarly, we must affirm basic tenets of force planning to ensure that we do not abandon years of hard-won knowledge. If a fleet of over 31 amphibs is required to ensure that an adequate number of vessels are operationally available at any point, then plans must be guided by that reality. Congress must be prepared to defend the force structure of the fleet and step in where necessary to fulfill its constitutional duty.
Second, provide long-term budgeting consistency for the shipbuilding industrial base. After years of adjusting to opaque and shifting planning guidance, the industrial base deserves a clear path forward. At the most basic level, Congress must reject any plan that contains ranges of battle force ships. There will always be some degree of deviation from the 30-year shipbuilding plan outside of the future years defense program, but that is no reason to abandon a critical resource required by law. Shipyards do not have infinite space, and skilled laborers must be trained and retained. Suppliers need consistent demand to remain solvent, and long-lead time items must be procured annually. We must lock in block buys for DDG-51 Flight III destroyers and Virginia-class submarines in FY23 to carry the industrial base through to future ship classes, save taxpayer dollars via the efficiencies associated with block buys, and maintain force structure. Simultaneously, early research and development efforts for DDG(X), SSN(X), and the Next Generation Air Dominance program need support to avoid capacity and capability troughs in the future. When a plan is delivered that secures U.S. sea power, Congress must fund it and the infrastructure required to maintain the resulting fleet. The best time to fund the SIOP was last year; we cannot make the same mistake in FY23.
Third, think beyond hulls in the water. The strength of U.S. surface and undersea fleets depends on their size and capabilities, and Congress, DoD, and industry must embrace every opportunity to strengthen and expand the value in each hull. When unmanned technologies and platforms prove operationally viable, they must be integrated rapidly into the fleet to support maritime intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, bring more munitions to a given theater, and fulfill a variety of other missions. In the short term, investments must be driven toward the Virginia Payload Module to enhance undersea strike capacity and improve payload distribution across the force. Simultaneously, other platforms that align with the shipbuilding plan—including long-range, deep-penetrating strike capabilities deployed from aircraft carriers—must be supported.
This decade will prove pivotal for the power and promise of America’s Navy. We must forge a future that reflects our history as a maritime nation, our principles as a democracy, and our strength as an ally and partner to many. It is time for a legitimate shipbuilding plan and the commitment necessary to see it through.