The Drift

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Navigation Brief

This is an e-newsletter first published Dec. 3

WASHINGTON – Good Evening, Drifters

Well, we have finally seen it: An Army chairman of the joint chiefs saying what we’ve always known to be true: “We’re a maritime nation. We are, and the defense of the United States depends on air power and sea power primarily. People can say what they want and argue what they want, but that’s a reality.”

Those were Gen. Mark Milley’s comments today at the USNI Defense Forum. And my but that’s fun to hear. His remarks seemed to indicate that the Army would be expected to pay for Navy and Air Force priorities in the forthcoming FY2022 budget.

You can read my colleague on the Navy beat Paul McLeary’s work on this right here, as a primer:

CJCS Milley Predicts DoD Budget ‘Bloodletting’ To Fund Navy

I think we need to take a wee step back and just remind ourselves of the context of those comments and why we maybe should pump the brakes on celebrating the big Navy plus-up on the backs of the U.S. Army that navalists have long dreamed of.

As Paul points out in the piece, we need to be real cautious about this talking point. And that’s what I want to chat about tonight.

Let’s Drift!

-DBL

Take a Deep Breath

Let’s go back to the week before the election: I was on a plane, flying out to Bath Iron Works with National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien and his staff, talking about his ideas about seapower. The result of that trip was me interviewing the NSA over pizza outside the shipyard where he made very clear the Administration was going to make seapower a priority in the upcoming budget.

I pieced together a bunch of reporting that showed the highest levels of the Trump Administration were plotting a major naval expansion, hence the headline:

As its term winds down, Trump’s White House plots a major naval expansion

This came in the wake of Esper’s kind of weird rollout of the 500-ship Navy plan, the major goal of which was to greatly expand the size of the fleet while keeping the cost of operating it steady: Seapower on the cheap. Now, as I was driving home from the White House, outside of which my car was illegally parked all day without a ticket (!), my colleagues Mallory Shelbourne and Sam LaGrone posted this on USNI, saying that the White House hadn’t signed off on Esper’s plan yet.

SECDEF Esper’s ‘Battle Force 2045’ Plan Still Awaiting White House Approval

That story tracked with some weird vibes I got on that trip from the White House staff around Esper’s Navy plan. Things got even weirder when O’Brien went to Wisconsin and told Marinette he wanted to build three or four frigates a year, well outside what any of the Force Structure Assessments called for. McLeary again:

NSA O’Brien’s Latest Audible on Navy Plans: Calls For More Frigates, Faster

Now, the point you must realize here is that Trump was never interested in Seapower on the cheap. As his and O’Brien’s trips to Marinette highlight: The Administration was always interested in the jobs aspect of Seapower. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that: so were the Founding Fathers. And it makes good sense if you want a maritime strategy such as the one O’Brien talked to me about to pump up your shipbuilding industrial base as much as possible. But in a time of flat budgets, as my story discusses, that means someone was going to have to pay the piper. And it was ALWAYS going to be the Army.

Now, fast forward to November 10. Washington Post reports that the Trump Administration is rushing to get its FY22 budget submitted.

White House tells federal agencies to proceed with plans for Trump’s February budget in latest sign of election defiance

Make no mistake about it: This move is in no small way influenced by the Trump Administration’s desire to realign the Defense Department around sea and air power. Now, we have Milley espousing the virtues of sea and air power at the USNI Defense Forum and letting on that the Army is going to pay for major investments in the air and sea domains. 

Look: The Trump Administration worked hard on this budget, and it was in no small way about aligning defense priorities to their vision for the world. And it is probably crushing that they won’t get to see it through. But they lost. They can submit this budget, but beyond making a political statement, I’m not sure I’d bank on any major realignments inside the Defense Budget.

Typically, what happens during an incoming administration is that the outgoing administration presents them a budget that is pretty much done. Then the incoming will make a few changes to reflect new priorities, but the outgoing administration does leave a mark on that first-year budget. However, it’s unlikely that Biden would want to see a major realignment in any agency before his team has a chance to look at it. So, while the Trump Budget will have weight, my best read on this is that Biden will want to have a chop on whatever Trump’s team put together. And any major shift toward seapower will likely have to survive the incoming team’s fine-tooth comb.

We can all appreciate seeing an Army 4-star preaching the gospel of seapower, but for now let's be patient for now and see 

On to The Hotwash!

The Hotwash

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