WASHINGTON – The U.S. Navy’s top officer said his service must have a larger percentage of the Defense Department’s budget if it’s going to grow the force and execute the strategy laid out by the Trump administration.

Adm. Michael Gilday, the chief of naval operations, said in a speech at the annual Surface Navy Association symposium that the cost of the new Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine was eating a disproportionate share of the shipbuilding budget, and that even a minor single percentage realignment would make a difference.

To compare, Gilday said the Navy’s budget in the 1980s — when it was building the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine — was much higher than today’s budget. “One percent of the DoD budget would be $7 billion per year in the shipbuilding accounts,” the CNO explained. “If I make some comparison from today and I go back to the 1980s, there are some similarities there."

“Right now we are building the Columbia class submarine. That is my highest priority," he added. "By the time we sundown the Ohio class, we’ll have 42 years in those hulls. We need to get Columbia out there.

“Now, let’s go back to when we were building Ohio in the 1980s: It was about 20 percent of the shipbuilding budget. Right now, Columbia is about 20-25 percent. In FY26-30 it’s going to be about 32 percent. That’s a lot of dough. In the 1980s, the Navy’s percentage of the DoD budget was 38 percent. Right now, it’s 34. So I think historically I have a case to make.”

The Pentagon has in recent decades, with a few exceptions, distributed a third of the aggregate budget appropriation (or top line) for each department: Army, Air Force and Navy.

But to pursue a strategy that keeps pace with China’s fast-growing Navy, and execute the Navy’s Distributed Maritime Operations strategy — distributing ships across a large area instead of aggregated around a carrier to spread out and confuse Chinese targeting and surveillance assets — then the department must pony up, Gilday said.

“Here’s the deal, we need more money,” he said. “We need more top line.

“If you believe that we require overmatch in the maritime domain, if you believe that in order to execute distributed maritime operations and to operate forward in numbers now that we need more iron, then, yes, we need more top line.”

Gilday’s comments come in the wake of similar remarks by the acting secretary of the Navy, who told Defense News that flat budgets mean that to grow the force, the Navy needs a higher top line.

“We definitely want to have a bigger Navy, but we definitely don’t want to have a hollow Navy either,” Modly told Defense News. “These are difficult choices, but the requirement to get to a bigger fleet, whether that’s 355 ships or 355-plus, as I like to talk about, it is going to require a bigger top line for the Navy.

“If you are growing the force by 25 to 30 percent, that includes people that have to man them. It requires maintenance. It requires operational costs. And you can’t do that if your top line is basically flat."

David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.

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