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Uncertainty Surrounds 30-Year US Shipbuilding Plan

Power Projection vs Budget Battles

The recently-issued 30-year US shipbuilding plan and accompanying ‘Battle Force 2045’ proposal (calling for over 500 ships) doesn’t look entirely like something the Navy has fully agreed to. Yes, it calls for a massive build-up, so the Navy must like that but, coming at the expense of Army and Air Force budgets, will make for some fratricidal battles on Capitol Hill. In the absence of an updated National Defense Strategy, the Navy can appreciate the administration’s recognition of the need for a strong maritime presence to counter adversaries like China.

Speaking at a Naval Institute event, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen Mark Milley, stated “The fundamental defense of the United States, and the ability to project power forward, are going to be naval and air and space power.”

From a practical standpoint, however, the Navy isn’t enthusiastic, for example, about cancelling one of its GERALD R FORD-class carriers.

In its FY 2022 Fiscal Planning Framework (FPF), the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) said that “Over the next five years, under the FPF, the budget for national defense would grow only at a projected rate of inflation of 2.1% per year.” But the FPF claims to incorporate the new 30-year Shipbuilding Plan, which “provides a larger, more capable naval fleet to protect the Nation’s economic and national security interests around the world [and] balances the significant increases in naval forces with consistent investments in joint warfighting capabilities to support great power competition and to counter emerging challenges in the Indo-Pacific. Those investments include tactical aircraft modernization, long range fires and hypersonics, missile defense, and space capabilities.”

These documents may be largely symbolic. For the past four years, the administration has made such bold proclamations, then taken full credit for actually accomplishing something, like the “massive defense build-up” or the 355-ship fleet. Failure to achieve those lofty numbers have been pinned on the mistakes of the Obama administration.

While the fleet is supposed to grow, the Navy wants to divest of some older ships and has announced retirement of the TICONDEROGA-class. The 30-year plan extends the service life of five of them, as well as nine LOS ANGELES-class attack submarines that were due to be decommissioned and recycled.

Candidate Biden didn’t campaign on the promise of a reduced defense budget. But with the economy’s gas tank on or near empty, there will need to be spending reductions as well as new revenue to build the treasury back up following the COVID crisis.

Political events may intervene, meantime – and we may go through a whole new cycle of defense strategies and shipbuilding plans. What will not go away are the people costs – pay, health care and retirement benefits. The number of recipients has been shrinking; the costs continue to rise.

And when Congress wakes up and realizes that there isn’t enough money to sustain the military as it is, let alone grow it – then we’ll see a more realistic budget. It may still favor the Navy and its forward presence and expeditionary capabilities, and it may not be so kind to the Army or Air Force. But it will support a spending spree.

Edward Lundquist in Virginia for MON

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