Correction: A previous version of this commentary cited fiscal 2021. It has been updated as fiscal 2022.
The proposed U.S. Navy shipbuilding budget for fiscal 2022 contains only good news for China. The threat of a larger U.S. Navy has disappeared. Reductions of cruisers eliminate long-range offensive and anti-submarine warfare ships. Frigates and Marine expeditionary ship programs are delayed.
Force assessments form the plan for the Navy. An assessment conducted in the 1970s and implemented in the 1980s defined the 600-ship, Cold War-ear Navy. The bottoms-Up assessment conducted in the early 1990s defined a 350-ship Navy for the post-Cold War environment, but was not executed.
The Navy continued to decline over the next decades. Another assessment in 2016 defined a 355-ship Navy for the current environment involving Russia and China and con-firmed in law. The last administration did not implement it. The current administration is not implementing it.
Rather, the ship production and retirement rates indicate a Navy of about 250 ships, declining over the next few years from the current level of 290. Early retirement of six littoral combat ships is planned.
There are eight new ships. Based on a 30-year life expectancy, this extrapolates to a 240-ship Navy. Some will argue that can be recovered in the future, but past reliance on that hope has proved fruitless for the last 20 years.
The conceptual Navy envisioned in the 355-ship law cannot happen within current budget expectations. The combination of increased ship cost — typified by the constant dollar growth of the warship Bonhomme Richard and replacement from $900 million to $3.2 billion, and seen in many other cases — dooms hope.
Only large unit-cost reductions and/or large budget increases can result in the hoped-for 355-ship Navy summarized from many analyses.
Increased funding could come from a reduction in fleet operating tempo. A reduction of 20 percent would yield $7 billion for recapitalization rather than annual operations. An alternative is elimination of the third nuclear triad leg, reduction in Army programs, and elimination of nonproductive research and development projects. Why is more R&D being spent on Ford-class carriers?
The other aspect likely to please China is the planned retirement of cruisers. The air defense capability is being superseded by the DDG 51 class, However, the reductions eliminate over 2,500 Tomahawk-capable launchers, 44 5-inch guns and 22 very good anti-submarine warfare ships. The anti-submarine characteristics include quieted propulsion, passive and active sonar, standoff weapons, and helicopter support. This capacity is not being replaced, but ship count is being maintained by LCS production.
Moreover, U.S. Coast Guard forces are not being expanded, leaving the United States’ exclusive economic zones open to Chinese fishing and poaching.
An important lesson from building the 600-ship Navy is to implement service life extensions while the longer-term construction is in progress. This should be done with the retiring cruisers. They have very important offensive and anti-submarine capabilities that are not duplicated by any other ship. There is no need to update the Aegis systems since that capability is furnished by destroyers. Retaining these 22 ships through service life extension provides an unmistakable offensive capability and retains a defensive capability.
Regarding funding, the proposed budget makes force levels the lowest level of importance. Yet these are the deterrent forces for the rapidly growing Chinese and Russian threats. Chinese merchant and 17,000-ship fishing fleets already dominate the world’s oceans.
Chinese naval forces would benefit from our failure to implement a 355-ship Navy in an aggressive manner. The U.S. acquisition system should make China’s goal of naval leadership harder, not easier.
Everett Pyatt is a former assistant secretary of the U.S. Navy for shipbuilding and logistics.