The latest U.S. Navy “budget salvo” that demands a larger share of the defense budget for the Navy requires some tough scrutiny. On Jan. 14, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday announced his service needs a bigger slice of the defense budget if it is to reach its goal of fielding a 355-ship fleet. This pronouncement comes despite the Navy already having the Department of Defense’s biggest service share of the defense budget.

While it is entirely expected for the top military leader of a service to be an advocate for resources, the CNO’s assertions were not entirely forthright. As the administration finalizes its fiscal 2021 budget submission to Congress, such budget salvos need to be unpacked.

First, the CNO indicated the Navy’s share of the DoD’s top-line budget is now only 34 percent, a number that falls short of the 38 percent allocated to the Department of the Navy during the Reagan administration’s defense buildup. Adm. Gilday continued by pointing out that “a one-third, one-third, one-third” budget share for each of the service departments “does not reflect the [National Defense] Strategy.”

It is absolutely true that a schema that allocates roughly one-third of the defense budget to each of the three military departments would be nonstrategic. It is a more important truth that the “one-third, one-third, one-third” service budget apportionment is a myth; that myth has been skewered by multiple independent analyses.

Hard analysis in a recent Mitchell Institute policy paper pointed out that the DoD actually allocated about 28.6 percent of its FY2020 budget request (including funding for overseas contingency operations) to the Department of the Navy; 26.7 percent to the Army; and only 23 percent to the Air Force — America’s “kick the door down tonight” force. The rest funds operations of the DoD’s defense agencies and other non-service organizations.

The Air Force’s 23 percent excludes $39 billion in “pass-through” funding in its budget for national intelligence-related and other programs that it does not control. In other words, the $39 billion is not available to buy new combat aircraft, hypersonic weapons and other Air Force next-generation capabilities needed to support the 2018 National Defense Strategy. For context, $39 billion equates to the total amount requested by the Air Force over the last four years to buy new aircraft.

Speaking of new aircraft procurement, the Navy’s largest budget share helps explain why it continues to buy more new aircraft per year than the Air Force. This is despite the fact that the Navy operates a smaller total fleet of aircraft than the Air Force. Moreover, the Navy’s top line excludes the additional resource benefits it receives from capabilities provided by the Air Force and the new U.S. Space Force, such as aerial refueling, airborne and space-based strategic surveillance, and positioning, navigation and timing information from GPS satellites procured by the Air Force. The key question is whether more is needed considering all this other service support to the Navy on top of having the largest share of the defense budget.

In contrast, the Air Force will not be able to modernize and grow its force to 386 operational squadrons by 2030, the minimum it says is needed to support the 2018 National Defense Strategy. Of note, the Navy apparently does not include new unmanned surface vehicles, or USV, that it intends to buy in its fleet count. This is contrary to the Air Force’s practice of counting its unmanned aircraft squadrons in its future force.

As pointed out by retired Navy Capt. Jerry Hendrix, the Navy should count new medium and large USVs that may carry sensors, vertical launching systems and other capabilities to conduct at-sea operations against America’s enemies. Not doing so would risk creating a less than accurate picture of the Navy’s war-fighting potential.

Gilday’s budget salvo should be seen for what it is: a return to a zero-sum argument to increase the Navy’s budget at the expense of the Army, which also needs to modernize; at the expense of the Air Force, which now operates the smallest and oldest force in its history; and at the expense of the Space Force, which needs more funding if it is to become a true war-fighting entity that dominates the highest frontier.

A better approach would be to argue for changes to the DoD’s planning and budget processes that remain stove-piped and focused on assessing each service’s annual budget proposals, rather than seeking the best value for the nation as a whole. Said another way, there is significant overlap in terms of roles and missions among the services.

Given that money is tight, the Department of Defense as a whole should assess which approaches to netting desired combat effects yield the most effective, efficient options.

This would see investment doubled down where the greatest return can be secured, while taking risk in other areas affording less tangible benefits given the same level of investment.

The first step toward this objective would be to fix extremely misleading budget accounting that lumps into the Air Force’s budget things that it does not control. No other service has such a misrepresentation of its resourcing. It makes the Air Force look similarly funded to the other services when in fact it is not, and not by a significant amount. This clarity is needed so that Congress and other national security policymakers are appropriately and fully informed of the DoD’s proposed resource priorities so they can make strategic choices that are best for the nation, not just a single service chief.

Mark Gunzinger, a retired Air Force colonel and former deputy assistant secretary of defense for forces transformation and resources, is the director for future aerospace concepts and technology assessments at the Mitchell Institute.

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