By Tony Capaccio (Bloomberg) –The White House budget office is pressing the Navy to stick to a campaign pledge by Donald Trump to work toward fielding a fleet of more than 350 ships after its initial proposal for the next fiscal year fell short.
The Navy proposal called for a 287-ship fleet by fiscal year 2025 — the last year of a potential second Trump administration, according to the budget office. But that level, which includes the decommissioning of 12 warships to save money, would be well below the long-term 308-ship target set by the Obama administration and even further from President Trump’s current goal of 355 ships.
Instead, the Office of Management and Budget directed the Navy and Pentagon to try again.
According to an OMB document sent to the Defense Department, the office called for a “resource-informed plan to achieve a 355-ship combined fleet, including manned and unmanned ships, by 2030.” That’s about four years earlier than the Navy’s current public plan and more than 20 years earlier than a previous schedule.
Heading into an election year, officials at OMB “are worried that after all this defense buildup, the Navy will be the same size as during the Obama administration and smaller than what the Obama administration had planned,” said Mark Cancian, a former OMB defense budget official who follows shipbuilding as an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“Not only would that contravene the president’s promise to build a 350-ship Navy — and risk a scathing Twitter storm directly from the president — it would also expose the administration to criticisms that the money was wasted,” Cancian said.
Cancian said that OMB’s 2030 target “would be a significant acceleration of a plan already believed to be unachieveable because of its high cost.”
An OMB spokesman said the agency doesn’t comment on “pre-decisional and deliberative” decisions. Chris Sherwood, a spokesman for the Pentagon comptroller, declined to comment. Lieutenant Tim Pietrack, a Navy spokesman, said in an email that “we will not comment on future shipbuilding decisions until the budget request is submitted to Congress next year.”
The OMB directions are part of the messy, sausage-making budget process, which involves proposals floated to the White House, followed by a back-and-forth appeals process that’s virtually certain to change program requests by the time the president’s official budget is released.
The service currently has 293 deployable vessels. As initially proposed, the service’s budget plan would result in “a smaller force in 2025 than the Navy has at present,” according to the OMB document. Among the vessels to be retired under the Navy’s plan would be the first four, widely criticized, Littoral Combat Ships, which would be decommissioned in 2021, at least 12 years earlier than planned. The first of those ships deployed in 2013.
“The Navy proposes to buy 42 warships and requests $111.8 billion in shipbuilding funds” from fiscal 2021 to fiscal 2025 “that will result in 12 fewer battle force ships and reduce shipbuilding funding by $9.4 billion compared to the fiscal 2020” plan, OMB said.
The OMB memo also praised the Pentagon for rejecting a Navy bid to retire the USS Harry Truman aircraft carrier by excluding funds for a midlife refueling of its nuclear reactor. It was the second time the Navy proposed the move, but the document said “OMB concurs with the recent Program Budget decision that directs the Navy to restore the funding.”
This year, the Navy announced a push to deploy more pilotless surface and underwater vehicles, but those as yet-unproven efforts are just in early development stages. An official with the Government Accountabilty Office urged the Navy to not use that effort to blindly boost ship totals.
“We hope that the Navy considers more factors than purely ship count as it debates its force structure plans during the fiscal year 2021 budget process,” said Shelby Oakley, an acquisitions director for the GAO who oversees shipbuilding oversight. Instead, she urged the service to better understand “what warfighting capabilities unmanned systems actually bring.”
Looming over the push to accelerate shipbuilding is an inconvenient truth outlined Dec. 4 by the GAO: “The Navy continues to face persistent and substantial maintenance delays that hinder its ability to stay ready for operations and training. Since fiscal year 2014, Navy ships have spent over 33,700 more days in maintenance than expected.”
According to the latest OMB document, the Navy requested seven new vessels each for fiscal 2021 and 2022 — three less for the first year and and two less for the second year compared with what was previously planned, according to OMB. The target of 13 for 2023 would be cut to nine.
Notably, the five-year plan cuts one of two planned DDG-51 destroyers built by General Dynamics Corp. for 2021, retains the two planned for fiscal 2022 and cuts two of three planned for 2023. It also eliminates one John Lewis-class oiler from General Dynamics planned for 2022 and one of two planned for 2023.
“The Navy is cutting shipbuilding funds and possibly retiring some ships early in order to buy other things, probably munitions and development of new weapons,” said Cancian, the defense analyst.
Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly issued a Dec. 6 memo to staff that was in sync with the White House directive. He called for a plan to achieve a fleet of 355 or more ships “for greater global naval power within 10 years,” according to the Congressional Research Service.
Trump repeatedly touts increasing defense budgets as one of his signature accomplishments, claiming the military was depleted and demoralized when he took office, a message he’s expected to carry on to the 2020 campaign trail.
Then-candidate Trump announced his goal at a September 2016 Philadelphia campaign rally when he said, “We will build a Navy of 350 surface ships and submarines.”
Following Trump’s election, in December 2016 the Navy announced a plan for 355 vessels it had been working on for months, replacing an earlier 308-ship plan under Obama.
Trump reaffirmed the 355-goal in a May 2018 address: “Very soon you are going to get to 355 beautiful ships, 355.” The 355-ship inventory also was endorsed as law in the fiscal 2018 defense policy bill to “have as soon as practicable.”
Before he was named national security adviser this year, Robert O’Brien was co-author of an article in Politico in April 2017 entitled “How Trump Can Build a 350-Ship Navy.” Addressing Trump’s goal, O’Brien wrote that “if he succeeds, he will join Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan as presidents who have shaped the world and America through their commitment to the Navy.”
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