The Trump Administration is spending some of its last days in office provoking a debate about building a larger and more lethal U.S.Navy to check China in the Pacific. This political document arrives late, but give the
Team credit for issuing this challenge to President-elect
National Security Adviser
and budget director
recently laid out on these pages a plan to reach a 355-ship Navy in about a decade, up from roughly 295 today. The Pentagon has been debating and studying how to expand the fleet, and the Trump plan suggests underwriting more than 80 ships over five years at a cost of $147 billion.
Americans expect a dominant Navy that can deter adversaries while enforcing order on commercial sea lanes. The Navy’s top officer noted to Congress on Dec. 2 that for the past two decades the service sustained the same operational tempo as the Cold War but with a fleet almost half the size. The Navy has recently been overworking aircraft carriers with back-to-back “double pump” deployments.
Also notable is a consensus that the Navy needs a more diverse mix of assets. The Trump document features a Navy with more small ships like frigates, which can carry out a range of missions and be procured at lower cost than, say, destroyers. Another essential idea is ramping up production of attack submarines that would be crucial in any conflict with China.
The plan would also scale up unmanned ships and vehicles. These technologies are exciting but nascent and the risk is that they become the next Pentagon sinkhole. Speaking of sinkholes, another important debate concerns the future of Ford-class aircraft carriers. The first-in-class USS Gerald R. Ford, price tag $13 billion, has long been mired in technology problems and delays. Carriers are also attractive targets for Chinese missiles. One percolating idea is smaller “light” carriers to complement the existing fleet of 11.
The Trump Administration says its plans can be paid for by drawing down forces abroad, slimming down the Army and reducing overhead. That is too optimistic. The defense world took quick notice when Joint Chiefs Chairman
a career Army officer, recently predicted “bloodletting” in the Pentagon to fund the Navy.
No one doubts the Defense Department is a target-rich environment for spending excess: The Pentagon shouldn’t be running schools and grocery stores; spending on personnel and retirees is unsustainable. Defense analyst
pointed out earlier this year that the Army has some 200 pediatricians.
But a larger Navy is a strategic choice that will require significant and sustained investment from a President and Congress. The challenges are deeper than the public appreciates. Ships take years to design and build even without the procurement misfires that have marred Navy acquisition. Assets have to be maintained and manned; the Navy in 2019 said it was short 6,200 sailors in sea billets. The Navy’s shipyards don’t have the proper dry dock capacity to keep up servicing carriers and submarines, which can result in maintenance delays that further squeeze the fleet.
Meanwhile, a September Pentagon report said China has reached parity with or exceeded the U.S. in shipbuilding, certain missiles and integrated air-defense systems. That ought to concern Americans who have been used to naval dominance since the end of World War II. Joe Biden might prefer to talk about expanding health insurance or forgiving student loans, but his first obligation is to keep America safe and its global interests secure.
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Appeared in the December 22, 2020, print edition as ‘Trump’s Parting Shot: A Bigger Navy?.’