By Captain John Konrad (gCaptain) In a heated Senate Armed Services Committee hearing today, Alaska’s Senator Dan Sullivan accused the Secretary of the Navy (SECNAV) Carlos Del Toro of breaking a critical shipbuilding law that legally requires the Navy and the Department of Defense to build a specific number of ships. The recent fight over amphibious warship procurement, as reported in a previous gCaptain article, played a significant role in the argument presented by Senator Sullivan.
This comes two weeks after Congresswoman Betty McCollum – ranking member of the powerful Defense Appropriations Subcommittee – told Del Toro and Chief Of Naval Operations Admiral Mike Gilday that the failure to include icebreakers in the recent navy budget request was “not a good answer admiral”.
Also Read: Top Navy Admiral Says No To Icebreakers
The hearing centered around the 31 amphibious warship requirement, an issue that has sparked a public dispute between the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps over the Navy’s decision to drop a planned purchase of a San Antonio-class amphibious warship from its 2024 budget. The core issue lies in the lack of a long-term vision for naval shipbuilding by the Pentagon’s political leaders, which has led to disputes between the Navy and Marine Corps over force building.
Senator Sullivan emphasized that Congress had already made the decision regarding the 31 amphibious warship requirement, arguing that the Navy is violating the law by not adhering to the mandate. The Senator cited the recent article on this issue from Defense One. It is likely the article titled “This Ugly Dispute Over Amphibious Warships Didn’t Have to Happen” by Brent Sadler as evidence of the violation.
“For too long, political leaders have starved the Navy of predictable shipbuilding resources, leading to priorities and choices that have actually cost the nation more while delivering fewer warships,” said Sadler, a Navy veteran and senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation. “Despite the growing China threat, the Biden administration’s budgets have consistently underfunded defense, even as they proposed double-digit percentage increases to other federal departments with little or no justification “
During the exchange, Senator Sullivan demanded answers from the Secretary of the Navy and asked for a commitment to return to the committee with a statement outlining how the Navy will comply with the law. The Secretary agreed to “look into the issue” and priovde a statement on how the issue can be fixed and follow the law, expressing hope that a multi-year procurement plan could be implemented by the President’s budget submission. This response further angered Sullivan who said Congress had already studyed the problem and further analysis is not needed.
Senator Sullivan was adamant in his stance, stressing that it is not an option for the Secretary of the Navy to ignore the mandate set forth by Congress and the President. The Senator also pointed out that the Navy has not utilized multi-ship procurement authorities provided by Congress in the past three National Defense Authorization Acts to save costs on amphibious warships, which further weakens the Navy’s argument on cost savings and taxpayer money.
During the hearing, the air grew thick with tension as Senator Sullivan turned his frustration towards his fellow senators, accusing them of failing to adequately address the shipbuilding failures and hold the Navy accountable. The accusation came on the heels of Senator Mark Kelly’s remarks—a former U.S. Merchant Marine midshipman and Navy officer—who chose to discuss the expansion of airspace and aviation facilities in his landlocked state of Arizona rather than confront the pressing shipbuilding concerns at hand.
Sullivan’s impassioned criticism underscored a rising tide of frustration over the Senate’s lack of focus on the Navy’s shipbuilding plans and the repercussions for national defense. The absence of a cohesive, purposeful approach from the Senate threatens to deepen the rifts between the Navy and Marine Corps as they grapple with building a formidable warfighting force amid mounting challenges.
“We have to be present,” said US Marine Corps Commandant David H. Berger earlier in the hearing. “We have to have the ships in there from the beginning because fighting your way in from the outside is not a good plan. We have to work on (maritime) logistics so that that forward stand in force is sustainable is ready.”
The growing tension between the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps (and also between the Navy and US Coast Guard and US merchant Marine) over shipbuilding and logistics as well as the recent hearing, highlights the urgent need for a clear and workable vision for securing the nation and building the Navy force required to deter potential adversaries, such as China. As the debate continues, it remains to be seen how the Secretary of the Navy will address the concerns raised by Senator Sullivan and if he will follow the law.
As the gavel drops on another Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, the future of our nation’s defense – and the protection of freedom of navigation globally – hinges on the ability to navigate these turbulent waters. The conflict over the 31 amphibious warship requirement lays bare the stark reality that without clear direction and unity, we risk losing our footing in an increasingly complex world. Senator Sullivan’s fervent plea for adherence to the law and a commitment to our naval forces is more than just a rallying cry—it is a call for decisive action that recognizes the urgency of the situation at hand. Seapower advocates like Sadler have shown repeatedly that the American people deserve a Navy and Marine Corps that are equipped to face the challenges of the 21st century, and it falls upon the shoulders of political appointees like Del Toro to steer the ship towards a future of stability and strength.
As tensions rise during Senate hearings, it becomes clear that the nation’s defense depends on the ability to address these pressing concerns. The disagreement over the 31 amphibious warship shipbuilding law exposes the harsh truth that without clear guidance and cooperation, the United States risks falling behind in an increasingly complex global landscape and raises a bigger concern: if the Navy is unwilling to follow the law regarding critical warships, it casts heavy doubt on our ability to address the broader challenges in shipbuilding, including the equally crucial need to rebuild the nation’s fleet of sealift and commercial ready reserve ships. A strong and capable maritime force is essential for national security, and wavering commitment to legal obligations raises concerns about maritime domain preparedness for the evolving global threats that lie ahead.
In light of these concerns, one must wonder: if the Secretary of the Navy and the Secretary of Defense (OSD) are not committed to following shipbuilding law, how can commercial shipyards have the confidence to invest in expansion and growth?
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