The Navy’s funding levels are too low for confronting China

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Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro recently opined that the Navy needs to increase its budget by 3 to 5 percent if it is to keep pace with China’s Navy, already the world’s largest fleet. The percentage happens to be identical with that which the Commission on National Defense Strategy proposed in 2018 for the entire Department of Defense (DOD) budget. Moreover, it closely approximates the increase to the DOD budget request that both congressional defense authorizing committees approved in the past few months. 

Del Toro argues that only a plus-up of this magnitude would enable the Navy to meet its 30-year goal of maintaining a fleet of just under 300 manned ships, coupled with as many as 200 other manned or partially manned warships. It is not clear whether the Navy could meet this objective even if Congress were to approve such an increase year after year for the next three decades, however. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the shipbuilding budget would have to total between $25 billion to $33 billion annually over that period to realize Del Toro’s objective. In contrast, the Biden administration’s fiscal year 2022 $22.6 billion shipbuilding request represents an actual decline from last year’s budget. 

Thirty years is a long time, and it is clear that China’s timetable appears to be much more urgent. Toward the end of last month, China completed its construction of a second aircraft carrier mockup, against which to target its anti-ship missiles. Earlier in October, China updated a set of warship targets that included mockups of a Nimitz class aircraft carrier and two Aegis destroyers. Both sets of targets are located in China’s Xinjiang region. 

Beijing also is building a third aircraft carrier, though it is unlikely to prove a match for its American counterparts. It will take China many years to perfect the system of conducting carrier-based air operations that are second nature to American sailors. Nevertheless, the fact that these large warships continue to be built indicates that China intends to field a major blue-water fleet that would support its increasingly worldwide interests, and certainly would complicate American naval and defense planning.

Few doubt that the Navy, together with the Marine Corps, is the “pointy edge” of America’s military spear in the Western Pacific, given that region’s vast maritime spaces. Yet the shape of that spear remains highly uncertain, especially if future shipbuilding requests continue to fall short of Del Toro’s goal and if Congress does not make up the difference, as it might this year. The Columbia class ballistic missile submarine alone absorbs about a fifth of the Navy budget. The four Ford class nuclear aircraft carriers will cost approximately $13 billion each. A fifth could be included in the fiscal year 2028 program. Arleigh Burke destroyers cost nearly $2 billion. 

Most analysts believe that the most effective warships in a conflict with China — which, in any event, most likely would not involve a Trafalgar or Leyte Gulf-like major sea battle — would be submarines. Yet Virginia class submarines cost about $3 billion each. It is unclear whether the Navy could procure more than three a year.

Numbers count. Former Navy Secretary John Lehman, who lobbied successfully for 15-carrier, 600-ship fleet, and Steven Wills, a respected naval analyst, argue in a recently published volume that the Navy should reconsider its longstanding opposition to smaller conventionally powered carriers so that it could significantly increase the number of these ships that the Navy could deploy to the Western Pacific. Other naval analysts argue that the Navy should drop its even longer-held opposition to acquiring diesel submarines, which cost roughly one-third that of the Virginia class and, like smaller aircraft carriers, could be built in significantly greater numbers. In both cases, technological advances in propulsion, among other areas, make these alternatives far more attractive than in the past. 

Whether or not the Navy adopts either of these proposals, it surely cannot simply continue on its current course. At present, the only way that the Navy could build 10 ships annually — the minimum if its hopes to reach even a 300-ship level — would be to build considerably smaller surface combatants, such as the Littoral Combat ship or the Constellation class follow-on frigate, whose utility in a conflict with China is far from certain.

Thirty-year plans may be fine for presentations and briefings to Congress, but they mean little in the face of what clearly is Beijing’s increasingly urgent determination to expel America’s maritime presence from its surrounding seas. If former Indo-Pacific commander Adm. Phil Davidson’s warnings regarding a Chinese invasion of Taiwan prove to be even close to correct, the Navy has but a few years in which to reorient its shipbuilding program if it is to constitute a viable deterrent — not merely against such an invasion, but against all of Beijing’s increasingly aggressive behavior throughout the western Pacific region.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.

Tags aircraft carriers China aggression Littoral combat ship ships United States Navy

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