For decades, America’s ability to project power abroad has waned as our Navy fleet has atrophied. During the Obama years, our fleet shrunk to a 100-year low, even as China was building its navy with unprecedented speed.
Recognizing this unacceptable trend, President Donald Trump championed a 355-ship Navy and successfully stemmed our naval decline. By the time he left office, our Navy had grown from a 275-ship fleet to a final count of 296 along a trajectory for growth. Yet the Biden administration has reverted back to the Obama model, proposing injurious cuts to shipbuilding that would further undermine U.S. security. As Biden officials prepare to send their second budget to Capitol Hill, they should know it does not have to be this way.
Reorienting the Pentagon back to a “blue water” strategic framework would deal a heavy blow to Beijing’s maritime ambitions. Defense planners and White House officials under Trump pursued this goal with vigor, unveiling a robust 30-year shipbuilding plan in December 2020. This blueprint would have met the 355-ship goal within 10 years, achieved a 400-ship fleet within 20 years, and invested in the next generation of game-changing naval capabilities. Importantly, this was all conceived within a framework of restrained overall defense spending.
But President Joe Biden threw out this plan in favor of so-called “integrated deterrence.” His first budget request proposed a 3% real cut to shipbuilding, which would have yielded just eight new ships and a single Arleigh Burke-class destroyer – a meager haul compared to Trump’s proposed 12 ships, secured through a 14% funding increase. Thankfully, Congress asserted itself in the budget process and boosted funding for shipbuilding to match President Trump’s December 2020 plan.
This year, the administration should not repeat its mistake. The president needs to recognize there is a bipartisan commitment to providing our military the resources it needs to keep pace with our adversaries.
The Biden budget should set a minimum funding level of $31 billion for fiscal year 2023, amounting to an increase of 17%, enough for 15 new ships. This would pave the way to deliver three new attack submarines per year while adding a second shipyard to build the new Constellation-class frigates. It would also support the development of next-generation destroyers, maintain our current number of aircraft carriers, and support the continued development of modern Columbia-class submarines.
Such an investment is increasingly urgent now for several reasons.
First, China has built the world’s largest navy and is continuing to add stunning capabilities each year. Chinese ships are rolling off the docks at a rate that far surpasses our current capacity and which will leave our allies, especially Taiwan, highly vulnerable. Beijing is watching to see how we respond. Now is a key moment to show China that our national security leadership is not a bureaucracy on autopilot, but a thoughtful and nimble team willing to make hard tradeoffs to meet new realities.
Second, ships take a long time to build. Our most important vessels take three to four years before they are ready to sail, and some longer. Our Founders understood that armies can be raised on a relatively short timeline, but not navy fleets. A sustained commitment to shipbuilding would give our defense industrial base the time and certainty it needs to make long-term investments.
Third, keeping a strong fleet is a longstanding tradition in American defense policy that is being forgotten, and must be recovered. Presidents from John Adams to Theodore Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan understood that maritime superiority is a crucial deterrent against conflict, advancing both American security and trade. Under the Reagan administration, for example, Secretary of the Navy John Lehman’s 600-ship fleet proved an indispensable tool in bringing about the peaceful end of the Cold War. Biden would do well to remember that peace is achieved through strength, especially as we enter the most dangerous juncture yet since the fall of the Soviet Union.
Some will understandably ask why a boost to shipbuilding makes sense at this time of record inflation and a $30 trillion national debt. The reality is that this investment would be a mere drop in the bucket compared to the multi-trillion-dollar stimulus plans and government expansions sought by the president and many in Congress. The difference between adequate and anemic funding for shipbuilding amounts to a handful of billions. Such an investment would also help deter future military escalations, making it a definite long-term bargain.
Simply put, we can afford a large and capable naval fleet while getting our fiscal house in order. We simply have to be willing to make tradeoffs.
With threats growing every day, it is time for the Biden administration to demonstrate its commitment to a superior Navy by proposing an immediate and substantial shipbuilding effort. Our nation can either benefit from the beginning of a broad bipartisan consensus, or continue trudging along with the bare minimum needed to satisfy short-term considerations – taking on added security risks in the process.
Read the op-ed with former Office of Management and Budget Director Russ Vought in the Washington Examiner here.