Analyst: Navy Needs to Get Real on Fleet Expansion Plans
It is an annual obligation of the Navy to tell Congress how many ships it will need over the next three decades and how much they will cost.
Each year, the Navy projects the fleet will grow in size as long as it gets the necessary funding. In the latest 30-year shipbuilding plan for fiscal year 2016, the goal is to reach 308 ships between 2022 and 2034, compared to 286 ships today.
The Navy’s civilian and military leadership has come under fire on Capitol Hill for failing to contain a gradual shrinkage of the fleet that began decades ago, and have insisted that there will be at least 300 ships by 2020.
But analysts believe that historical budget trends and political realities point to a far smaller Navy, one even smaller than today’s.
Between now and 2020, the Navy has an “unexecutable plan,” said naval analyst Bryan Clark, of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. The Navy on average has spent about $14 billion a year on new ship construction for the past three decades. To rise above 300 ships, it would need $2 billion to $3 billion more per year, and it would require $20 billion by 2021 to start building an expensive new ballistic missile submarine.
“Where do you get the money?” Clark asked. Congressionally mandated spending caps are in place for the Defense Department through 2021. The Navy, he said, is financially stretched to pay for its current obligations, let alone increase funding for the construction of future ships.
Congress instituted the 30-year shipbuilding plan so it could capture an annual snapshot of Navy ship requirements. But the document has failed to spark a candid debate about how these requirements will be funded, Clark noted. The number of ships has fluctuated over the years, from 300 to as high as 375 a decade ago, and now back down to 308. Whatever the number, “it will be almost impossible for the Navy to reach it” because it does not have the money and no real prospect of a significant funding boost.
“The shipbuilding plan lays out the requirement and the cost, but no discussion about what’s the alternative if you don’t get that money,” Clark said. “We have to have an adult conversation on the fact that we are not likely to get that money.” The options are to either buyer fewer ships or to take money from other pots in the Navy’s budget such as aviation, ship maintenance or training. “That’s where the conversation needs to go,” said Clark.
While working as a special assistant to the chief of naval operations a couple of years ago, Clark helped develop an “alternative shipbuilding plan” that was more in tune with fiscal reality, or a shipbuilding budget of about $14 billion a year. “You end up with about a 240 to 260 ship Navy,” Clark said. Those estimates are in line with those of the Congressional Budget Office. If historical spending trends hold, the Navy will either shrink or will have to take drastic measures to bump up the shipbuilding account. “People have to decide if they want to take that risk now or later. I would argue that you should take the risk today,” which would mean making painful cuts to other accounts in order to invest in the future. “You don’t know what the world might be like in 2030. It could be more challenging than it is today. Maybe we are better off taking that risk today than taking that risk down the road.”
A fleet of 308 ships, the Navy said, is the required size to meet the demands of regional commanders around the globe. In the new shipbuilding plan, Navy officials point out that the service’s budget took a $25 billion cut over the last three years. Unless shipbuilding budgets grow as the plan recommends, the Navy will not have enough money to start building a new strategic ballistic-missile nuclear submarine to replace the Ohio class. The first ship would have to be funded in 2021, the second in 2024, followed by one each year between 2026 and 2035.
“If additional funding is not available to support the shipbuilding procurement plan throughout this period, knowing that the Ohio replacement SSBN will be built, the balance of the shipbuilding plan will be significantly impacted,” the Navy’s report said. The submarine would consume about half of the shipbuilding funding available in a given year – and would do so for a period of over a decade. The Navy also is obligated by law to maintain a fleet of 11 aircraft carriers. When factoring the new submarine and carrier requirements, by 2026, the report said, “there would only be about half of the resources normally available to procure the Navy’s remaining capital ships.”