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Opinion Pieces by Rob

The Nation Needs a Real Plan to Grow the Navy

The Department of the Navy needs a serious, strategy-driven shipbuilding plan; and Congress must provide full, consistent funding to turn that plan into real ships. Read my Op-Ed on this issue from the U.S. Naval Institute - Proceedings below.

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. As Russia advances further into Ukraine each day, and calls on China for military aid, the U.S. must take a hard and clear look at the eroding deterrent value of its conventional forces and posture—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 (FY23), 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 that our allies and partners know our 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 of the United States must reflect our sober commitment to uphold our international obligations, counter the 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 shipbuilding plans that suffer execution. The defense budget request for FY23 must be accompanied by a future year’s defense program and a 30-year shipbuilding plan that demonstrate a simultaneously ambitious—and realistic—approach to maintaining the primacy of US 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 ‘Battle Force 2045,’ more formally known as the Future Naval Force Study (FNFS). 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 over $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 understate 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 1-year “30-year” shipbuilding submission proposed a range of ships 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 on “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China,” laid out the CCP’s shipbuilding prowess in no uncertain terms. While the U.S. debates how and if to build a fleet of 355 vessels, China has already secured that inventory, making the People’s Liberation Navy the largest in the world. Further, “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 SSBNs. 

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, outgoing and current INDOPACOM commanders, Admiral Philip Davidson and Admiral John Acquilino, testified that China aims to resolve its disputes with Taiwan by 2027. 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 after-thought, 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 tenants miss the most consequential and immediate threat facing the Indo-Pacific, —the independence of Taiwan. The lynch pin of the Pacific is Taiwan.

As harbinger of tests to come, China consistently demonstrates its willingness to violate Taiwan’s sovereignty time and time again. 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 like the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The CCP finances development projects in partner nations, but states are unavoidably indebted to China as a result. Djibouti, for example, owes a great deal of 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 check point for major shipping lanes. 

Fortunately, some defense leaders recognize the challenge. There is a clear, although unstated gap, between the White House and Defense Department documents. Recently, before Congress, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Affairs Ely Ratner explicitly stated: “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 plans for new construction of ships. 

The United States can deliberate no longer; now is the time for action. China is building out its fleet, it has developed long-range missiles to hold foundational components of U.S. strength like the Carrier Strike Group and our forward bases at risk which increase the compexity of our challenges.  The People’s Liberation Army counts on our continued 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, but concrete steps are required in the short-term to shore up our shipbuilding industrial base for future growth and pose real challenges to the PLA today. The United States can achieve these goals by investing rapidly in expanding the capacity and capabilities of our naval assets 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 fleet of approximately 297 battle force ships today 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 OPTEMPO that characterized the Cold War.” Combatant Commanders’ requirements for forward naval presence are markedly unlikely to abate as China’s assertiveness grows. Without substantial investments in more ships with improved capabilities, we know that vessels remaining in the fleet 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. This recognition of the problem and subsequent insufficient action, however, only makes recent failures from Navy and DoD leaders 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 a recognition of the challenges before the Navy today, or over the horizon. 

Last year, the Navy requested a single DDG-51 destroyer—brazenly demonstrating a willingness to violate its contract obligations without action from Congress—added 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 British Navy. While the DoD proposed shrinking the U.S. fleet and cutting the Navy’s shipbuilding budget, the CCP continues investing in theirs. 

Even if the Navy truly 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 the infrastructure necessary to maintain all of its vessels. 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 yards must still be upgraded to complete work on new ships like the Ford-class carrier and the newest variant of the Virginia-class submarine, for example, to accommodate the size, power, and cooling requirements of the new class. The Navy’s 2018 pitch for the Shipyard Infrastructure Optimization Program (SIOP) proposed investing over $20 billion into the Navy’s 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 initial funding into the Navy’s SIOP program and other related infrastructure modernization projects for the fleet’s future maintenance needs. This is a financial commitment the Navy that is absolutely required.  

Beyond investing in the infrastructure to maintain an expanded fleet, we also need Sailors and Marines to man the ships we put to sea. Issues of recruitment and retention persist, leaving our Navy short 6,000 sailors. This skeletal structure is not ready to go head-to-head with China. We cannot risk a hollow force. 

Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michael M. Gilday recently affirmed that the Navy needs a fleet of over 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, Admiral Gilday also acknowledged that his judgement is based on the ongoing force structure assessment that will inform the Navy’s budget request for fiscal year 2024. I am unwilling to accept another year of shipbuilding budgets that underinvest in our 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 an aircraft carrier in the next five years must be aggressively operationally tested and proven. Purported amphibious ship reductions spell uncertainty for the Marine Corps. Achieving such a precipitous expansion of the fleet would require shipbuilding budgets we have not seen in decades. We must show our adversaries that we are serious about how we will fight, not how we could fight. Navy and DoD leaders must transition aspirational statements into operational actions. 

Executing Marine Corps Force Design 2030: Opportunities and Pitfalls 

A key test of our commitment to the future fleet will be demonstrated by how the Department of Defense and Congress engage with the ongoing redesign of the Marine Corps.

Commandant of the Marine Corps General David Berger laid out in his Commandant’s Planning Guidance (CPG) in the summer of 2019, which was an instrumental shift in how the Marine Corps will aim to fight in the highly dynamic future battlefield where the operating environment will require a force to function in a more distributed manner.  Force Design 2030, which was included in General Berger’s Planning Guidance, is a strategy that must be fully embraced by the DoD and Department of the Navy as a whole. Increasing our future adversary’s risk calculus by being unpredictable and more maneuverable through executing Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO) is the type of forward thinking that we should encourage throughout the DoD. Gone are the days of uncontested airspace, freedom of movement, and logistically rich infrastructure that we enjoyed for twenty years in the Middle East. We need a force that can operate, sustain itself, and thrive within the adversary’s Weapon 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) capabilities that 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 and moving from island to island. The LAW will fulfill these requirements by embarking and transporting the maneuver elements. Still, the LAW cannot meet the large logistically heavy requirements that only the traditional amphibious vessels such as the LHA, LHD, LPD, and LSD can satisfy. Indeed, as the Commandant has said before the capabilities are complementary. One cannot come at the expense of the other. 

Marine Corps General David Furness, recently articulated the momentous necessity of amphibious ships when explaining how Combatant Commanders (CCDRs) need a fleet of 39 amphibious ships to satisfy the Marine Expeditionary Units (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 fiscal year 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 ability of the U.S. 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 which 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 most technologically complex and powerful ships known to mankind. 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 ships we are building and why those ships must be built. In March 2021, Admiral Davidson testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee that, “Taiwan is clearly one of [China’s] ambitions…And I think that threat is manifest during this decade, in fact, in the next six years.” We must orient the urgency of our shipbuilding plans around this assessment of vulnerability in INDOPACOM. Our force structure—accounting for the construction of new ships and the retirement of old hulls—must be aimed at reinforcing the strength of our fleet well before 2027 to convince Beijing that they will not be able to subjugate Taiwan by force and demonstrating our commitment to defending a free and open Indo-Pacific. Similarly, we must affirm basic tenants of force planning to ensure that we do not abandon years of hard-won knowledge. If we know that a fleet of 39 amphibs is required to ensure that 31 are operationally available at any point, then our plans must be guided by that reality. Congress must be prepared to defend the force structure of the fleet and prepare to step in where necessary to fulfill our constitutional duty. 

Second, Congress and defense leaders must recognize that the shipbuilding industrial base is most efficient and productive when the Department of Defense demonstrates long-term consistency. After years of adjusting to opaque and shifting planning guidance, our industrial base deserves a clear path forward. At the most basic level, Congress must reject another 30-year shipbuilding plan that contains ranges of necessary 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 that is required by law. Shipyards do not have infinite space and skilled laborers must be trained and retained. Suppliers need consistent demand flow to remain solvent, and we must procure long lead time items annually. We must aim to lock in block buys for DDG-51 Flight III destroyers and Virginia-class attack submarines in FY23 to carry the industrial base through to future ship classes, save taxpayer dollars via the valuable efficiencies associated with block buys, and maintain our force structure. Simultaneously, early research and development efforts for DDG(X), SSN(X), and the Next Generation Air Dominance program, for example, should receive support so that no capacity or capability troughs reappear in the future. When a plan is delivered that secures our sea power, Congress must be prepared to fund that plan and the infrastructure required to maintain the resulting fleet by investing in the facilities and shipyards that will service and maintain our existing and future force structure. The best time to fund the SIOP was last year; we cannot make the same mistake in FY23. 

Third, Congress and defense leaders must think beyond hulls in the water. The strength of our surface and undersea fleets depends on their size and capabilities, and we must embrace every opportunity to strengthen and expand the value each hull brings to a Combatant Commander. When we are sure of unmanned technologies and platforms, 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 mission sets. In the short term, investments must be driven toward the Virginia Payload Module to enhance our undersea strike capacity and improve payload distribution across the force. Simultaneously, we must support other platforms that are in alignment with the shipbuilding plan such as investing in the long-range, deep-penetrating strike capabilities that are supported by aircraft carriers.

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.