The Navy the Nation Needs Now
On the 2016 campaign trail, a 350-ship Navy was one of the signature promises of then-candidate Donald Trump. Shortly after his election, in December 2016, the Navy released a landmark Force Structure Assessment calling for a 355-ship fleet. While the plan was developed under the Obama administration, it aligned closely with the President-elect’s vision and quickly generated strong and bipartisan support on Capitol Hill.
Yet almost halfway through the Trump administration’s first term, progress towards a 355-ship Navy has been mixed, at best. While Congress has acted to plus-up shipbuilding accounts in each of the past two years, the administration’s 30-year shipbuilding plan, released earlier this year, did not chart a course to a 355-ship fleet until the 2050s—beyond even the most distant years of the plan. Hugh Hewitt raised this point with Vice President Mike Pence during an interview last week, to which the Vice President told listeners to “stay tuned” for progress towards 355 ships.
Unfortunately, there is good reason to be concerned about the Navy’s commitment to reaching 355 ships. Back in March, Navy officials testified to the Armed Services Committee that they were planning on conducting a new Force Structure Assessment that would take a fresh look at fleet size and architecture requirements arising from the January 2018 National Defense Strategy. But just last month, the same Navy official announced—for the second time—a forthcoming Force Structure Assessment, due “some time” in 2019. Little mention was made of what the Navy had been doing in the six months between the two announcements, let alone of why the new study would not be complete until more than a full year after the release of the national defense strategy.
In some respects, it is understandable and even proper that the Navy should want to revisit its December 2016 assessment. After all, the National Defense Strategy marked a radical shift in the Department’s priorities, explicitly calling out threats from great powers, not terrorism, as the primary challenge to American security and prosperity. But one thing is clear: the defense strategy, with its focus on China and Russia, makes maritime superiority more, not less, of a priority going forward. Secretary of Defense James Mattis has said as much, testifying earlier this year, “I believe we are moving toward a more maritime strategy in terms of our military strategy to defend the country.”
Given its delay in conducting a post-National Defense Strategy Force Structure Assessment, the Navy is giving the impression that it is trying to slow-roll and perhaps even walk back a 355-ship fleet. If this is the case, it is a mistake for at least four reasons.
First, as Secretary Mattis made clear, the demands of the National Defense Strategy require a greater emphasis on seapower than in the past. This in turn suggests that the Navy’s plan for a 355-ship fleet, developed prior to the new defense strategy, represents a floor, not a ceiling, for the Navy the nation needs. In the aftermath of the Vice President’s recent speech on China, which some analysts have harkened as the official launch of a new Cold War, it is inconceivable that demands on Navy force structure would do anything but grow in future years.
Second of all, the longer the administration waits to put a plan to grow the Navy into action, the less likely it is to materialize. As Reagan-era Navy Secretary John Lehman argues in his memoirs, he had in effect two years to lay the foundation of a 600-ship Navy, because by the end of the administration’s second year, "the defense bureaucracy had reasserted its hold over the policy process." In other words, sooner or later, inertia will triumph. The key for successful administrations is to score major policy wins early and often while they still have political capital. In order to make good on the President’s signature defense campaign promise, there is not a moment to lose.
Third, growing the Navy “as soon as practicable…[to] not fewer than 355 battle force ships” is now a matter of U.S. law thanks to the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act. Congressional intent is clear and aligns closely with the Commander-in-Chief’s vision.
Fourth, Navy leadership itself has argued that it is time to move out in all haste to start growing the fleet. As Chief of Naval Operations John Richardson put it, “First and foremost, let’s get building. We can argue whether 355 is the eventual right number, or is it 360, 370…but in the near-term, we’re at 280 against a target of 355. Let’s get building.”
In the words of General Patton, “A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.” The long-term size and composition of our Navy is an important subject, and one that deserves careful analysis and rigorous debate. My colleagues on the Armed Services Committee and I will be actively participating in this debate and working to ensure the new Force Structure Assessment is grounded in a threat-driven response to National Defense Strategy requirements. But even in the absence of a comprehensive analysis coming out of the new defense strategy, we need to move far more quickly on near-term production merely to get into the ballpark where all serious studies acknowledge we need to be. On that, there is no debate.
The Chief of Naval Operations has talked about a 355-ship fleet as the “Navy the Nation Needs.” And it’s true. American security increasingly depends upon maritime superiority. This superiority is not a birthright and is being challenged by China and Russia every day. This is not a 30-year out problem. This is a here and now problem. The Navy the nation needs is the biggest one it can possibly build—now.
Rep. Mike Gallagher is a Marine Veteran representing Wisconsin's 8th District. He currently serves on the House Armed Services and Homeland Security Committees.