BUDGET 2024: Navy’s New Tech Priorities Shortchange Amphibious Fleet, Expert Says

By Laura Heckmann

Navy photo

The Navy is requesting a $5.8 billion investment in Columbia-class submarines in its fiscal year 2024 budget request to Congress, which includes the first of two increments of funding for the second submarine to be awarded in 2024.

The Department of the Navy’s request, which includes Navy and Marine Corps funding, tops out at $255.8 billion, an $11 billion — or 4.5 percent — increase above the recently enacted fiscal year 2023 budget, according to Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Budget Rear Adm. John Gumbleton. The Marine Corps’ portion of the 2024 request is $53.2 billion.

“[The President’s Budget] 2024 procures the second Columbia-class submarine, our nation's most survivable leg of the strategic triad and keeps us on track for the delivery of the first vessel in fiscal year 2028,” Undersecretary of the Navy Erik Raven told reporters at a budget briefing March 13.

The request also would fund the construction of nine battle force ships: one Columbia-class submarine, two Virginia-class submarines, two Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers, two Constellation-class guided-missile frigates, one John Lewis-class fleet replenishment oiler and one submarine tender. The destroyers and frigates alone total $6.7 billion, with another $1.9 billion in incremental funding for three Ford-class nuclear aircraft carriers.

“This request delivers the resources necessary to ensure America’s naval forces are ready, timely, flexible and forward deployed across the full spectrum of challenges,” said Raven, adding that the priorities submitted in the 2024 budget request reflect the president’s National Security Strategy and the 2022 National Defense Strategy.

The request includes $1.8 billion for amphibious ships, including the final increment of full funding for the LHA-9, an American-class amphibious assault ship. The medium landing ship, or LSM, remains stranded in research and development, with the lead ship scheduled to begin production in fiscal year 2025.

In addition to ships, the request also seeks $17.3 billion in procurement for 88 aircraft and a $2 billion increase in weapons programs, while continuing a “strategic pause” on new amphibious ships and proposing the reduction of 11 ships, including two littoral combat ships and three dock landing ships.

The 2024 budget request sends a clear message, said Sam Tangredi, retired Navy captain and professor in the strategic and operational research department at the Naval War College. It’s a sacrificial slashing of legacy systems to finance the readiness of newer vessels, he said.

The priority of the Chief of Naval Operations is readiness, Tangredi said — a mantra that translates to “newer vessels that they consider more capable.”

Tangredi questioned the so-called “divest to invest” philosophy, arguing there is no guarantee the money saved will go back into buying new systems.

“That money goes somewhere with the defense budget, but it may not even come back to that service,” he said in an interview. The concept also operates on a shaky assumption that the Navy can afford the same capabilities and future systems to match the legacy systems, he said.

“So, the question is, do you want to build high technology, very sophisticated systems, or do you want to go with systems that are not quite as capable, but you have them in numbers?” he said.

Seamus Daniels, fellow for defense budget analysis in the international security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the budget shows no indication the Navy is planning to “ramp up the size of the fleet in the foreseeable future.”

While the budget request does include some funding for medium landing ships, landing platform docks were nowhere to be found, he noted. The Navy is currently evaluating the service’s needs and holding off on LPD procurement, a move the commandant of the Marine Corps criticized at a recent Amphibious Warship Industrial Base Coalition congressional forum.

Daniels said the future years defense program does not include funding projections for the LPD.

“We're going to have to wait to see what the future of that plan is for amphibs,” he added.

The absence of amphibious ships is also a statement about the Navy’s prioritization of the Marine Corps, Tangredi said.

“You just take a look at what money is put towards this light amphibious warship,” he said. A lack of support for these ships confuses the Marine Corps’ entire doctrine, he argued.

“The whole Marine Corps doctrine about shifting from amphibious assault force to a forward but Island-based force that will conduct sea control — to do that, you really do need these light amphibious warships,” he said. Without funding for those ships, “then basically the Marine Corps doctrine doesn't make any sense.”

Neither does the Navy’s preparation for a potential conflict with China, he said.

“The U.S. fleet is too small to be able to prevail in a conflict with the People's Republic of China. And this budget really doesn't help that,” he said. “[The Defense Department] constantly says the pacing threat is China. If that's true, then this defense budget does not match the pacing threat, because it has not yet shifted the resources towards … Navy and Air forces, because they’re going to be the ones that actually fight the war.”

Tangredi also argued the Navy’s most substantial program, the Columbia-class submarine, “plays no role in the [People’s Republic of China] scenario, except for providing a strategic nuclear deterrent. “So, the Navy is in the position where much of its shipbuilding budget, and its primary shipbuilding program, has no effect on the warfighting scenario that the Navy is expected to engage in.”

Navy officials said the budget was guided in part by the Marine Corps’ Force Design 2030, which is designed to reshape the service’s combat forces for future near-peer conflicts. The budget request includes $705 million in additional support for Force Design 2030, highlighting the development of marine littoral regiments, defensive missile systems, communication systems and advanced vehicles.

The absence of amphibious warships is an indicator of a classic problem, Tangredi said: the Navy considers amphibious warships “second class.” The shipbuilding plan is dominated by the surface warfare officers, he said. The surface warfare community traditionally looks at the destroyer as the epitome of what a combat ship should be, “and amphibious warships are not real combatant ships,” he added.

Daniels sees the prioritization as a reflection of the Navy’s attempt to strike a balance between preparing for the threat of the future and addressing the risks of today.

“Because what we’ve heard from [the Office of the Secretary of Defense] is that the size of the amphibious fleet today is adequate for the demands that the Navy and the military writ large is asking,” he said.

“And I think the trade-off that the Navy is making, in the near term at least, is to cut back on force structure,” he said.

Gone are the shipbuilding plans of the Trump administration, calling for a rapid buildup of the fleet size, Daniels said. Scaled back under the Biden administration, the overall size of the fleet has fallen, with no expectations to grow again until the mid to late 2030s, according to the most recent shipbuilding plan. A new plan is expected later this year, although when remains unclear.

The absence of amphibious ships was weighed against a notable increase in weapons procurement, Daniels said. The 2024 budget request adds $2 billion for weapons, in part due to the Navy’s strategy for multi-year procurement programs for several missiles, he added.

The Navy is pursuing four multi-year contracts for the Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Standard Missile 6 and, jointly with the Air Force, for the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile and Long Range Anti-Ship Missile weapons systems. Fiscal year 2024 will also be the first year of production of the conventional prompt strike weapon that will be integrated onto the Zumwalt-class destroyer.

According to budget documents, funding for research and development would increase by nearly a billion dollars in 2024, with investments in modernizing warfighting capabilities across all domains.

Shipyard maintenance would increase $1.9 billion, and the service is seeking $2.73 billion for the Shipyard Infrastructure Optimization Program. Raven said the request funds both private- and public-sector ship maintenance, with a focus on increasing capacity and retaining skilled labor in public shipyards.

Defense hawks on the Hill have already criticized the 2024 request as inadequate. Ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss, slammed the Navy request for underfunding shipbuilding, signaling rough seas ahead for the defense budget during congressional deliberations.

“Even as the Chinese Communist Party makes its bid for rapid control of the Pacific, this White House is failing to offer a blueprint to secure our interests,” he said. “There is no time to waste to make a monumental investment in American shipbuilding.” 


Topics: Navy News

Comments (1)

Re: Navy’s New Tech Priorities Shortchange Amphibious Fleet, Expert Says

As a former Marine I must agree with those who think that amphibious operations are "low class" and not in need of updating' or even adequate funding for maintenance. You can bomb someplace into gravel, but it's not yours until you put boots on the ground. Since everything within 1,000 miles is considered to be a target it will be necessary to have as many hulls as possible -- and all of the amphibs are hulls that can have long range radars and weapons systems "bolted on". I don't see as the "proper warships" need be the only ones utilizing high end sensors and connected comms -- such as the "small ship" or "2nd class ship" providing targeting data and relaying communications (nobody wants to put a 13,000,000,000 status symbol with 5,000+ men and women aboard into surface launched anti-ship crosshairs). Oh, and while we're about it, why not adapt the boomers to be able to carry both ICBM's and conventional missiles? There's nothing saying that we can't put put non-nukes onto them (it will only confuse Russia's accounting of our compliance to a treaty which they no longer adhere. It's not like boomers have never been adapted to cruise missiles, this would just be using them as a mission module instead of a complete conversion.

Everett Puterbaugh at 7:06 PM
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