By Tony Capaccio (Bloomberg) — The Pentagon is bolstering the number of warships the Navy will seek in its fiscal 2021 budget request after the White House complained an initial proposal was too low to meet President Donald Trump’s long-term target, according to officials.
In the budget proposal expected Monday, the Navy will request funding for eight ships, up from seven in a draft service request in mid-December. The new request for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1 includes two DDG-51 Arleigh Burke destroyers built by General Dynamics Corp., one more than the service proposed seeking in the December draft.
The Navy’s proposal indicates it was unable to add a second Virginia-class submarine, for a total of two, instead of the additional guided-missile destroyer. That move to swap the sub for the destroyer came after the Pentagon, under pressure from the Office of Management and Budget to bolster funding for the agency that manages nuclear weapons, shifted about $1.6 billion in proposed funding away from the submarine program for that effort, according to officials.
The overall request will help the Navy get marginally closer to Trump’s long-term goal of creating a 355-ship fleet. The service was pressed by the White House budget office in December to accelerate its ship-building plans to show it could achieve a fleet of that size “including manned and unmanned ships, by 2030.” That’s about four years earlier than the Navy’s public plan and more than 20 years earlier than a previous schedule.
Still, “eight ships would be less than the 11 ships that the administration requested for procurement in last year’s budget” for this year and “less than the 13 that Congress authorized in its action” on the current budget, Ronald O’Rourke, a naval analyst for the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, said in an emailed statement.
Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly and Defense Secretary Mark Esper reached agreement on the new budget proposal, which came as Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, spearheaded a successful effort to boost funding for the National Nuclear Security Administration by about $2.5 billion to nearly $20 billion. To meet that goal, the Pentagon shifted about $1.6 billion of the proposed funds away from the submarine program. The remaining defense dollars were shifted from other areas.
The funding shift likely won’t sit well with Armed Services Democrats Jack Reed of Rhode Island, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Tim Kaine of Virginia. The Virginia-class submarine is made jointly in Connecticut and Virginia by General Dynamics and Huntington Ingalls Industries Inc.
A significantly expanded naval fleet was a key campaign promise of Trump’s in 2016. The Navy’s proposal in December targeted 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 included the decommissioning of 12 warships to save money, would be well below the long-term 308-ship target set by the Obama administration, the budget office said in a memo obtained by Bloomberg News.
The service currently has 293 deployable vessels.
The public battle over the adequacy of the next five-year shipbuilding plan will be get underway next week when the Navy releases its final fiscal 2021-2025 blueprint.
The budget proposal will likely meet the approval of National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien. Before he joined the Trump administration, O’Brien was the co-author of an April 2017 article in Politico 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.”
Modly referred to O’Brien’s support for a larger fleet last week during a Washington event where he discussed force structure and the need to balance buying more vessels but not at the expense of a force that can’t be maintained.
“We don’t want a hollow force,” Modly said. Still, he added in reference to the 355-ship target, “It’s my obligation to give the president a plan, give the secretary of defense a plan, for how we can get there at the lowest amount of cost.”
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