WASHINGTON — After several years of increasing spending and virtually unprecedented shipbuilding budgets, the U.S. Navy’s party could be coming to a screeching halt in the 2020 budget, according to analysts and insiders who spoke to Defense News.

Conversations with more than a dozen insiders, lawmakers and analysts reveal a far less friendly upcoming budget cycle for the U.S. Navy than the previous three, and anxiety is growing about just where the ax is going to fall.

The president’s announcement that the Pentagon’s topline budget is likely coming down to $700 billion in 2020 from 2019’s $719 billion has some seapower advocates and analyst pointing to the shipbuilding budget as a place that DoD might look for savings.

“If the FY20 budget request comes in a $700 [billion] then it could be bad news for shipbuilding, because that’s one of the fastest ways to take money out of the budget at the last minute, which is what they are trying to do,” said defense budget analyst Todd Harrison with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The dropping topline could mean the long-congressionally protected shipbuilding budget, which grew from an average of $17 billion (in 2018 dollars) annually at the beginning of the decade to north of $24 billion in 2019, might have capped out. And even with the major plus-ups, the budget was still about $4 billion shy of what the non-partisan Congressional Budget Officer said would be the average annual cost of the Navy’s 2019 30-year shipbuilding plan.

But to what extent Congress will be willing to take a hack at the shipbuilding budget is an open question, one that lawmakers say will be pressurized once the President’s Budget for 2020 drops.

“The press reports are that the topline is going to be lower and significantly so, and that’s going to intensify the competition for priorities,” said Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., who is the presumptive next chairman of the House Armed Services Committee’s seapower subcommittee. “I think the call for a larger fleet is a bipartisan one, but a lower topline is going to be a challenge for everyone.”

The message from the Defense Department has been anything but clear.

When asked by a reporter about building up Navy capacity in an Oct. 26 roundtable, Pentagon number 2 Patrick Shanahan was evasive, saying that the focus inside aviation was getting the most out of the inventory the Navy already had. When it came to ships, Shanahan said, he wanted more but said the department — two years into the administration’s promised buildup — was unsure of what the right mix of ships would be.

“In the work that we’re doing right now, it’s ‘What’s the right mix?’ and its pre-decisional here, but we want more, not less,” said Shanahan, who is the deputy secretary of defense. “We think in this budget quantity is very important. Less exquisite, higher quantities.”

Whither cuts?

But if the Navy is going to go after “less exquisite” ships, it’s unclear were the cuts would come.

Some of the Navy’s most exquisite programs — the Flight III Arleigh Burke-class destroyer and the Virginia-class fast-attack submarine — are on multiyear contracts that would be painfully expensive to break. And the Columbia program has been the Navy’s top priority for years now, something that Courtney said he doesn’t think will see the budget ax anytime soon.

Courtney, whose district includes the General Dynamics Electric Boat shipyard, said Columbia was viewed as a vital program even during the more spare Obama years.

“Sea-based deterrent is still a pillar,” he said. “Even if people want to look at the composition of the triad, I think the sea-based leg enjoys bipartisan support.”

The key, Courtney said, will be to balance the imperative to grow the fleet with the $7.2 billion-per-hull Columbia Class.

The littoral combat ship will almost certainly be a ripe target for cutting, since it is already three ships past its requirement. Its replacement, the FFG(X), is slated to be awarded by the end of this fiscal year and is a high-priority program, also unlikely to be cut.