PHILADELPHIA — A sweeping series of proposed cuts to the U.S. Navy’s shipbuilding programs and force structure could herald a new strategy for a slimmed-down fleet, or could fizzle out in the budgetary process. But the fact that such a proposal is on the table in the first place shows the pressure under which the Defense Department is working as it anticipates a flat budget and a stack of modernization bills to pay, experts say.

A memo obtained by Defense News and sent by the White House’s Office of Management and Budget to the Department of Defense outlined dramatic cuts to the Navy’s Flight III Arleigh Burke destroyer program, cutting five out of the 12 proposed over the five-year Future Years Defense Program, of FYDP. It also pushed a Block V Virginia-class attack submarine out of the 2021 budget, dropping down to one from the planned two. And it slowed down the buy for the planned 20-ship FFG(X) program, ordering just one in 2021 and 2022, instead of the planned two each year.

The cuts to force structure were even more dramatic. The Navy accelerated the decommissioning of four cruisers and considered canceling service-life extensions on some of its oldest cruisers. The service is also planning to retire the first four littoral combat ships as many as 17 years early, and is planning to retire three dock landing ships early.

The memo reflects a complete reversal of strategy from the planned 355-ship Navy, which is written into national policy, and actually shrinks the force to 287 ships.

The pressure is coming for multiple directions, said Bryan Clark, an analyst and retired submarine officer with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

“The Navy and Air Force are getting eaten alive by sustainment costs and [Office of the Secretary of Defense] bills for space, hypersonics, etc.,” Clark said in an email. “They need to come up with savings in the near term, which can be achieved by cutting procurement. In the mid-term, the Navy is looking to save money by retiring ships early to recover the O&M and address manning shortfalls by moving Sailors to the newer ships.”

But the cuts could also be paving the way for a new, smaller Navy that relies more on unmanned technology to make up for fewer large manned surface combatants, Clark said.

“The Navy is also likely to propose revising ship counting rules to add unmanned vessels, which would let it still reach 355,” Clark said. “That is likely the reason the acting [secretary of the Navy, Thomas Modly], talks about reaching 355 ships by 2030, even as the DoD budget currently proposes to shrink the manned portion of the fleet.”

Indeed, the memo itself, which amounts to a back-and-forth between OMB and the DoD over areas of disagreement, directs the Navy to submit a plan to get to 355 ships by 2030 and do so by incorporating unmanned. “OMB directs DOD to submit a resource-informed plan to achieve a 355-ship combined fleet, including manned and unmanned ships, by 2030,” the memo read.

Some analysts were thrilled to see the Navy cut investments to unmanned platforms. Michael O’Hanlon with Brookings Institution said this was a step in the right direction for the Navy.

“I am thrilled by these changes,” O’Hanlon said. “They put quality over quantity and innovation over tradition. As best I can tell they are spot on with my strategic priorities and those of the [National Defense Strategy].”

But others were wary of cutting current force structure to pay for unproven — indeed, yet to be designed and built — unmanned platforms. Dan Gouré, an analyst with the Arlington-based think tank The Lexington Institute and former Bush administration defense official, said it’s a strategy that rarely works out.

“It sends a bit of a chill up my spine to hear that the Navy may be considering cutting a bird in the hand for a theoretical eagle down the road,” Goure said. “That almost never works. I’ve been doing this long enough, 40 years of this. Tell me when that’s ever really worked.”

Significant impact

News of the proposed cuts made waves with some in Congress. A local station in Mississippi, where half of the Navy’s Arleigh Burke destroyers are constructed by Huntington Ingalls Industries, sought comment from several of their lawmakers who expressed displeasure with the cuts.

“I’d remind the Pentagon that through the authorization and appropriations processes, Congress will ultimately decide the sizes of our manned and unmanned fleets,” Rep. Steven Palazzo, R-Miss., told WLOX. “Now more than ever we need these multimission ships to fight against the real threats from countries like Russia and China. I find it doubtful that Congress would buy into this plan to limit construction of destroyers while we are actively working to rebuild our military.”

Jerry Hendrix, an analyst with the Telemus Group and a retired Navy captain, said recent comments by acting Secretary Modly and the president’s national security adviser have signaled that the Trump administration is on board with 355 ships.

“I think the likelihood of the cuts going through to be low,” Hendrix said. “They had a higher chance prior to [national security adviser Robert] O’Brien’s speech at the Reagan Defense Forum and Thomas Modly’s elevation to Acting SecNav.

“It’s clear that there is now political leadership for a 350-ship Navy, and now it is clear that a 350-ship Navy — or 355-plus, as Modly puts it — is a political as well as a strategic issue for the administration, and it is unlikely that the Trump administration will accept retrenchment in 2020.”

The cuts themselves would create serious setbacks for some shipbuilders, Hendrix said.

“Such cuts would be disastrous for the building programs and would cause layoffs within the two surface shipyards,” Hendrix said, referring to Huntington Ingalls in Pascagoula and General Dynamics Bath Iron Works in Maine. “I don’t think it would cause layoffs in the Virginia-class yards because they are going full out [to build Virginia- and Columbia-class submarines] and seem to be having problems keeping up with production demand.

“We need stability in the shipbuilding industrial base, and such cutbacks are going the opposite direction of the strategic goals laid out by DoD, the [Department of the Navy] and the White House over the past three years.”

Clark, with CSBA, agreed, saying that Bath Iron Works could be especially affected. “I think the impact on the industrial base will be significant,” he said. “In particular, BIW may lose some ships. If they don’t get the FFG(X), that could leave BIW with gaps in production. They and HII may need to pursue unmanned vessels to sustain their workload.”

For some, the proposed cuts were disappointing but unsurprising.

Bryan McGrath, a retired destroyer captain and analyst with defense consultancy The Ferrybridge Group, said the plan to reduce the size of the fleet is a sign that the Defense Department isn’t willing to put the resources required toward growing the fleet, despite the 355-ship rhetoric of the Trump era.

“This is why it’s so hard to grow a Navy,” McGrath said. “You have to decide it’s a national priority, you have to devote a lot of resources and you have to do it over a period of years. None of that has happened.”

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

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