Navy needs a strategic communications adjustment
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With the release of the Navy’s 30-year Shipbuilding Plan and the public previews of the Joint Force Structure Assessment, it has become increasingly clear that the largest hurdle for conventional warfare competition success against China depends on the Navy’s ability to cross a critical body of water to get to the fight — the Potomac River. Put in another way, Navy needs to readjust their strategic communications message and highlight the basic portions of their message that Congress has been begging the administration to adopt for the last several years. Whether or not this revisioning of the Navy’s force structure is going to survive first contact with Congress deeply depends on their ability to course correct their message.

The Navy and the Office of the Secretary of Defense have done a fine job constructing this 30-year Shipbuilding Plan. Particularly noteworthy is the Navy’s effort on accelerating our asymmetrical advantages with a focus on attack submarines while simultaneously shoring up our weaknesses by increasing our logistics fleet. By addressing these basic shortfalls in their current plan, they seek to accelerate the disruptive and deep strike capability of our attack submarines and to sustain the joint fight with additional logistics capabilities. However, many of these positives are lost in the skepticism surrounding the volume of ships.

This plan has little to do with the “500-ship Navy” that was touted to the public earlier this year. In reality, this plan is a determination that the fleet needs to be reflective of smaller vessels operating in a more distributed manner. What this boils down to is a 405-manned ship Navy plus a future manned and unmanned teaming convention to accommodate the battle force 2045 Navy fleet. This is exactly what our nation needs. If this sounds familiar it is because this manned and unmanned teaming construct is what a bipartisan commission of the House Armed Services Committee independently arrived at with their Future of Defense Task Force that was released earlier this year.

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Naturally, the Navy will inevitably be asked how they expect this ambitious plan to be funded and they must be upfront in their response. The Navy has offered to support their plan to include a reduction in large surface combatants, a reduction in large amphibious vessels, and a further internal 4th Estate and Navy savings in order to ensure success. This will give budgeters on Capitol Hill the understanding that if the 2 percent real growth — as required in the plan — cannot be sustained, we must look to either redistribute funds from other accounts or accelerate reductions in large surface combatants to produce the necessary funding for this plan. This honest communication of the budgeting realities that this plan presents will buy good will from members of Congress and hopefully allow some recognition that when it comes to funding this plan our budgeting decisions must be as flexible as the strategies we hope to fund, and nothing should be off the table. While we will not know the breadth and scope of these efficiencies until the budget request is sent to Congress, it is important that Navy is willing to endure the pain to achieve the gain.

Ultimately, this plan is a healthy revisioning of our nation’s Navy, and while there are still many challenges that need to be worked out through the future budgeting cycles, the strategic elements associated with the plan are sound. Congressional allies stand ready and willing to work with the Department of Defense to actualize this plan, but the Navy needs to be fully transparent and candid — a failure to adequately communicate this plan will be to the nation’s detriment.

Wittman represents Viriginia’s 1st District and is ranking member of the House Armed Services Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee.