Biden’s plan to cut Navy ships: Handing China victory at sea
The Biden administration’s 2023 defense budget request falls far short of America’s strategic needs. The administration remains committed to concepts like “Integrated Deterrence,” a notion that the invasion of Ukraine showed to be strategically vacuous. Of equal importance is the budget’s proposed dollar amount, $813 billion: Given inflationary projections of above 7 percent, Biden’s proposed 4 percent increase amounts to a defense spending cut.
More relevant are the individual services’ budgets, which dictate the actual resource distribution between military capabilities. Specifically, the administration’s budget request for the Navy and its ship-retirement plans are cause for real concern. These suggest that the Sea Services have been tied to irrational political-economic and construction timelines that pay insufficient attention to the strategic consequences of their budgetary choices. A shrinking fleet does not simply send the wrong message to our foes in the abstract. In the concrete, the administration’s budgetary plans will diminish American combat power precisely when China is hungrily eyeing Taiwan.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has raised anew the prospect of great-power war. Indeed, judging from Russian doctrine and Russian statements, the Kremlin deems itself engaged in just such a conflict with the U.S. and NATO. On March 16, Vladimir Putin characterized the West as waging a comprehensive and total “war of economic, political, and informational means.” Before invading Ukraine, Nikolai Patrushev, Putin’s FSB security chief, characterized America’s goal as “the collapse of the Russian Federation.”
A Russian failure in Ukraine, however, will not deter Chinese ambitions towards Taiwan.
Ukraine spans 233,000 square miles and is home to 44 million people; it has the depth, population and resolve to wage a long-term attritive war against Russia. What we can glean from its strategy points towards this objective: Ukraine fortified cities, mobilized its population, and with NATO military assistance has defended well enough — and counterattacked effectively enough — to force Russia into brutal battles for position.
None of those conditions exist for Taiwan. Its territory is only 14,000 square miles and is eight times as densely populated as Ukraine — its 23 million citizens concentrated along the island’s northern, western and southern coastline in major urban areas. And Taiwan is an island, so supplies must move by sea or air, not land.
Just as NATO military weakness invited Russian aggression, American Indo-Pacific weakness will invite Chinese aggression. Moreover, China will learn from Russia’s mistakes in Ukraine. Russia’s 190,000-man offensive has failed spectacularly so far because Putin never expected serious resistance. Consequently, China will redouble its efforts to destroy Taiwanese defenses as rapidly as possible, presenting the U.S. and its allies with the fait accompli Russia could not achieve.
This underlines the strategic folly of the administration’s proposed Navy budget and, particularly, its plan to retire Navy ships — 24 of them, 16 before their scheduled retirement. The Navy would cut nine Freedom-class Littoral Combat Ships, five Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruisers, two Los Angeles-class nuclear-powered attack submarines, two Dock Landing Ships, two oilers, and two Expeditionary Transfer Docks.
This accelerated retirement schedule stems from the Navy’s “Divest to Invest” scheme, unveiled last year. “Divest to Invest” reflects a competitive budgetary environment and the reality that the fleet is overstretched and underfunded. By shedding older, larger, less capable ships, the argument runs, the Navy can free up funds for newer, smaller, more numerous platforms, like the Constellation-class frigate and future unmanned surface and subsurface vessels.
Three issues exist with this concept — one internal-political, one industrial, and one strategic.
First, there is no guarantee that the Navy will recoup money gained from retiring these ships. Washington’s budgetary environment is as cut-throat as ever. All the services seek a role in the coming struggle with China, so the Navy should expect its sister services to grasp for its portion of the budgetary pie. Moreover, Washington’s attention span is notoriously short: Even if Democrats lose Congress in November, we should not expect a revitalized focus on foreign affairs or attention to military and grand strategy under victorious Republicans, considering the state of the American Right. Rather, cost savings may very well be siphoned into yet another entitlement program or be fought over for some Republican-supported agricultural pet project.
Second, “Divest to Invest” assumes that the Navy has the time to shed old ships and then build and deploy new ones. The Freedom-class LCS, like its Independence-class fraternal twin, was a poorly conceived ship, designed with political, strategic and technical assumptions of the early 2000s. Absent significant upgrades, they are of limited use in a Sino-American confrontation. The Constellation-class frigate will fill their role far more effectively.
However, while the Navy will have ordered four Constellations by the year’s end, they will not reach the fleet until the late 2020s. Fincantieri Marinette Marine is a good shipyard, but the Constellation is approximately twice the Freedom-class LCS’s displacement — and the latter took two years each to build. Retiring Los Angeles-class submarines will free up funds for Virginia-class boats, but the Los Angeles is perfectly capable of Western Pacific combat duty. Considering the bungled AUKUS deal, the Navy must, at least, consider the possibility that U.S. yards will build Australia’s new submarines, further disrupting construction timelines. And unless the Navy plans to transform its force structure in the next five years, retiring every supercarrier and pulling the Ticonderoga cruisers from the fleet will simply compound existing stress on the Navy’s surface force, which has had multiple high-profile collisions since 2010.
If China is preparing to strike Taiwan, why would it wait to attack until 2032 or 2035 to fight a more modern, potentially larger U.S. Navy? Retiring ships today creates a window of vulnerability in the immediate future, one for which the Navy is not prepared.
Third, by pulling its support ships — specifically its oilers, Dock Landing Ships, and Expeditionary Transport Docks — the Navy is hamstringing itself and the military more broadly in the event of a long war with China. Combat operations may be rapid and violent, but warfare in general is as likely to be fast as it is slow. It is entirely conceivable that, with American intervention, China could fail when assaulting Taiwan, and that this could lead to a sustained conflict.
It is also conceivable that China could achieve its military aims in short order but then face an American-led coalition that constrains its gains, again leading to a sustained conflict. Large transports and oilers are precisely the ships the U.S. would need for an extended war, especially considering the poor state of American logistics, the dearth of American-flagged merchant ships, and the scarcity of qualified merchant crews. By retiring these ships today, the Navy threatens to upend U.S. military strategy in any war longer than a few weeks.
Cutting back on fleet size now, in the hope of regaining combat strength in a decade or more, is the strategic equivalent of waiting until your roof leaks to fix it. But roof leaks seldom end in disaster.
The war in Ukraine ought to remind us that great-power competition is real and likely to expand. It is not merely an idea acknowledged in official policy guidance. “The future” means every moment from tomorrow to ten years hence and beyond. U.S. and allied security should not rest on the hope that funds will appear to reshape the fleet by the end of this decade.
A more inopportune time to cut the fleet cannot be imagined, especially because a conflict in the West Pacific would be chiefly a naval/amphibious one. Congressional action is required to maintain the current fleet, change its future shape as the threat posed by China continues to grow, and assert its constitutional responsibility for the nation’s security.
Seth Cropsey is founder and president of Yorktown Institute. He served as a naval officer and as deputy Undersecretary of the Navy and is the author of “Mayday: The Decline of American Naval Supremacy” (2013) and “Seablindness: How Political Neglect Is Choking American Seapower and What to Do About It” (2017).