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Is our Navy ready for a looming Pacific war?

The Department of the Navy exists to deter an aggressor, defeat an adversary and protect American interests. But its budget is limited and the priorities to achieve results require change. 

To start, it’s time to consider base realignment. We have more infrastructure than money to maintain our bases. No matter the mission, every base has duplicative expenses, life safety, security, etc. To achieve savings, we must consider the bottom line: What is the value of an installation if it drains precious dollars and doesn’t contribute to defeating an adversary?

We can no longer fight on two major fronts — China must be the focus. It is making its aggression known. Taxpayers fund the Navy with $220 billion, so how can the Navy spend more effectively for its mission? Here are the metrics: a declining ship count (now 296, with 39 marked for decommissioning, versus a 355 congressional requirement, against China’s fleet of 355 ships that is expanding to 420); aviation readiness of just 67 percent; and degraded infrastructure (installations maintained at 50-70 percent). 

Research and technology expenditures raise questions on resulting weapon system acquisition (such as the littoral combat ship and Zumwalt class destroyer) and over-cost and delayed platforms (the Ford class carrier, at $13billion, and F-35 at $110 million). R&D is important but the threat of a conflict in the Pacific is not 10 years out — it’s immediate. For how many conflicts have we not been ready, either having been caught by surprise or having underestimated our adversary? We need urgency.

Construction, maintenance, operations, energy, labor, environment, resilience, encroachment and inflation — these are all cost factors impacting installation readiness. The Navy spends $16 billion annually on 96 installations and it’s insufficient to maintain readiness. Training range encroachment is reducing readiness. The Naval Air Station Fallon range is obsolete. Environmental regulations constrain readiness. Some locations want Navy investment, but not Navy presence hampering readiness. 

America needs a Navy that can protect its interests. For example, South Korea believes an attack by the North is possible on any given day and its forces train constantly to be ready. Can the United States deploy a ready force to win a war in the Pacific if called upon today? If not, we need to set new priorities.

A deployable strike force starts with essential installations. Each ship and airplane departs from and returns to an installation. That is where training, depot-level repair, loadout and resupply take place. The naval installation portfolio is valued at nearly $500 billion. Life-cycle funding is required for everything we build. The Building Owners and Managers Association suggests 2-4 percent of building value is required for annual maintenance. That equals $10 billion to $20 billion for the Navy; using 30-year straight line depreciation suggests $16.5 billion annually. But the Navy spends $5 billion, meaning we have a deficit of $11.5 billion. 

The Department of Defense requires an 80 percent level of maintenance, yet we maintain 50-70 percent. Some buildings are in disrepair from age and deferred maintenance and should be demolished. The cost of offsetting rising water on the Eastern Seaboard worsens the problem. To address deferred maintenance requires funding the equivalent of an aircraft carrier or four destroyers.

Like a cop on the beat, we need a more visible presence to deter adversaries, and increased lethality to protect our interests. We must identify and realign nonessential installations, locate the Navy’s strengths in the United States and overseas to counter any threat, and prioritize ship count and readiness at installation expense. 

And the Navy is not alone in this — the Army and Air Force have similar problems.

Business measures a store or plant by its contribution to the bottom line. If it’s not cost effective, relocation or closure is typically the alternative. Applying sensitivity analysis, if the budget were $150 billion or $300 billion, how would the Navy prioritize spending? What is essential for winning a potential conflict with China?

Lethality is the main thing that should be taken into consideration, especially when capital is limited. The Navy should sacrifice something to achieve optimum readiness/lethality for the taxpayers’ investment. 

Be bold, act now! We don’t have the luxury of bureaucratic timelines for decisions. The threat in the Indo-Pacific is looming.

Rear Adm. (Ret.) Charles A. Williams is a former Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Energy, Installations and Environment and Hudson Institute fellow.

Tags China aggression Indo-Pacific U.S. armed forces u.s. navy
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