Last Thursday, the House voted on a final National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2023 that secures the future of our naval fleet for another year. Fortunately, Congress improved the Navy’s FY23 inadequate shipbuilding plan in critical ways: We rejected the Navy’s ship construction plans, their decommissioning schedules, force structure proposals and overarching threat assumptions.
While the ink dries on the FY23 NDAA, it is prudent for the Pentagon and Congress to be clear on the final outcomes of this cycle. If the Navy refuses to learn lessons from this year, it will be doomed to repeat them.
First, Congress recognizes that fleet capacity cannot be sacrificed in the near term. I accept former Indo-Pacific Command leader Adm. Philip Davidson’s assessment that China will likely aim to reintegrate Taiwan by force by 2027. Our entire force structure should be optimized to prevent conflict at the time of our greatest vulnerability. Our president must have options to respond appropriately to that crisis.
This will necessitate hulls in the water with a deep arsenal of weapons, not nebulous proposals in PowerPoint slides.
For this reason, Congress rejected the Navy’s request to retire ships that have service life remaining, and those equipped with modern combat systems. This judgement from Congress conflicts with Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro’s recent comments that “many members of Congress have been very supportive of our efforts to decommission these ships,” in reference to Ticonderoga-class cruisers. Actually, Congress specifically prevented the retirement of the guided-missile cruiser Vicksburg in the FY23 NDAA.
Similarly, Secretary Del Toro also asserted that amphibious dock landing ships, or LSD, approaching 35-40 years of age should be retired early, but each of the four LSDs that the Navy recommended decommissioning this year have available hull life remaining. One of those ships, LSD 48, even has nine years of hull life remaining, meaning the ship could be in service until FY31.
Congress is willing to build more ships than the Navy and places more faith in the shipbuilding industrial base. Secretary Del Toro admitted that additional dollars would be better spent on “more [Arleigh Burke-class] DDG Flight IIIs or Constellation-class frigates,” instead of modernizing Ticonderoga-class cruisers. Senior Navy leaders, however, have repeatedly tried to throw cold water on opportunities to build more than two DDG Flight IIIs per year, blaming industry for the service’s own lack of commitment to strategy-based shipbuilding plans.
But industry is not the problem; our nation’s shipbuilders confirm they have the capacity to support a larger fleet. Acknowledging this, Congress added an additional DDG Flight III to the budget for FY23.
Further, despite having the industrial capacity, the Navy also did not add an additional Constellation-class frigate and rejected plans to expand the frigate-industrial base.
Secretary Del Toro also asserts that expeditionary transfer docks are “nowhere nearly as capable as the expeditionary sea bases we’re producing.” Still, the Navy also rejected a less expensive option to update the two older expeditionary transfer docks that were slated for retirement this year and improve their capabilities.
Both expeditionary transfer docks intended for retirement this year had another 30 years of service life remaining. Congress rejected the retirement of both, as well.
Congress believes the United States deserves a strong naval fleet that will be able to advance our interests and deter our adversaries during this period of greatest vulnerability. We also believe that our forces must be able to prevail in conflict if deterrence fails. When the Navy sends its FY24 budget request to Congress early next year, lawmakers will expect candor from Navy leaders about how their budgets impact their ability to build the fleet we need to compete with China.
It is unacceptable for the Navy to shift blame by misrepresenting the industrial base’s capacity, rather than acknowledging the Biden administration’s unwillingness to invest in our national security.
Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., in the ranking member of the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee.