Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are sounding an alarm on the Navy‘s “divest to invest” strategy, which they say is leaving the service vulnerable to a rising China.
Faced with tough budgetary decisions and with an eye on threats of the future, the Navy has committed to decommissioning 15 ships and reduced its procurement by close to 9% to redirect funds toward research and development for warfare capabilities. The plan is to divest in current capabilities and invest in future war technology.
Lawmakers and defense experts say the strategy has a poor track record and delays much-needed capabilities.
Furthermore, the plan was announced just months after Adm. Philip S. Davidson, the outgoing commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, told Congress that tensions with China could escalate into a military conflict over Taiwan within six years. That timeline is significantly more rapid than what was previously anticipated.
Adm. Davidson‘s successor, Adm. John Aquilino, agreed with the assessment during his nomination hearing last month.
The Chinese Communist Party would have a window to further build up its military while the U.S. divests to invest. Some lawmakers say that plan sends a dangerous signal at a critical time in U.S.-Chinese relations.
“President Biden’s proposed budget for the Navy sends an awful message to China and our adversaries, and it puts the United States in a weakened position for years to come,” Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, told The Washington Times. “The CCP now controls the largest army and navy in the world. It has more troops and more ships than the United States. Meanwhile, President Biden’s budget would reduce the size of our Navy at a critical time. It’s now up to Congress to provide our war fighters the resources necessary to deter and, if necessary, win a conflict against China.”
Rep. Elaine Luria, Virginia Democrat and a former Navy surface warfare officer, delineated the situation when questioning Adm. Michael Gilday, chief of naval operations, at a House Armed Services Committee hearing.
“It’s not prudent to decommission 15 ships in the next year when China could invade Taiwan in the very near term,” she said. “So I understand you were given a pretty [bad] top line by the administration, and specifically the Pentagon. You didn’t have a lot of good choices, but you did have choices.”
Policymakers have long known about China‘s growing threat, but Adm. Davidson‘s testimony served as a wake-up call to the urgency of the moment and that the Biden administration’s budget proposal does not reflect it.
“What is remarkable with this budget this year is the fact that we have been several years into this realization, a bipartisan realization, and yet we still see and continue a persistent inclination to cut force structure, to cut budgets,” said Brent Sadler, a retired Navy captain and senior fellow for naval warfare and advanced technology at The Heritage Foundation.
“At the very time that we’ve had his consensus for several years, and real-world events keep reminding us that we need to wake up to this threat and actually start growing the military. Otherwise, our diplomacy becomes really just words and our influence diminishes precipitously,” he said.
The Pentagon’s budget request of $715 billion is up just 1.6% over last year. It is largely viewed as a reduction when factoring for inflation. The Navy‘s share of nearly $212 billion is up 1.8% year over year and also trails inflation.
China‘s defense spending has increased from an estimated $41.2 billion in 2000 to $244.9 billion in 2020, according to a report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Although the U.S. far exceeds China in defense spending, China consistently invests in its military at a staggering pace. The Center for Strategic and International Studies reported in March that China‘s National People’s Congress announced a 6.8% increase in its 2021 defense budget.
China‘s specific allocation for its navy is less clear, but there is little doubt that the CCP has aggressively pursued modernized warships since the mid-1990s. China recently surpassed the U.S. to have the largest navy in the world, with 360 battle force ships. The U.S. Navy maintains 297.
The Office of Naval Intelligence projects that China will reach 425 battle force ships by 2030.
The Biden administration has acknowledged China‘s rise. During his confirmation hearing, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin highlighted the communist country’s ascendancy to become the top U.S. threat.
Mr. Austin traveled to the region for his first trip abroad as secretary. In March, the administration said a task force would assess Defense Department policies to respond to China‘s military growth.
Some lawmakers say the numbers do not reflect the administration’s espoused focus on China.
“I was optimistic that the president would hear that rhetoric from the secretary and turn it into action, but I was being naive. Rather than keeping pace with the threat from China, the president’s budget would let them lap us,” Mr. Rogers said at a recent hearing.
The big question hanging over the divest-to-invest strategy is the impact on the Navy‘s force structure in the near term and the Navy‘s industrial base in the long term.
The Biden administration’s case for decommissioning 15 ships is to save on operational costs of keeping aging platforms at sea. But with the proposed reduction to the procurement budget, the Navy would add only eight battle force ships.
The Navy has been inching toward a 355-ship goal under the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, which Congress passed in part to address China‘s growing navy. The Navy has not had 355 ships in its fleet since 1996 and will have a net decline under the proposed budget.
Adm. Gilday said at a recent House Armed Services Committee hearing that the 355-ship goal was predicated on an assumption of 4.1% top-line growth over 10 years. The Navy later released an adjusted force posture with a goal of 321 to 372 ships.
“As I’ve said many times, and as many of my colleagues have echoed today, you know, we’re looking at this battle force 2045, a plan that’s far off, a 355-ship goal that we’re never going to get to when we decommission more ships every year than we actually build, and it causes a great concern because I think there’s an urgency,” Ms. Luria said during the hearing. “I mean, what are we going to do in 2025 to counter this threat?”
The reduction in procurement also calls for the cancellation of a destroyer that was part of a multiyear contract, for which the Navy will incur a $33 million penalty.
Sen. Susan M. Collins, Maine Republican, told Mr. Austin during a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing last week that the cancellation of the destroyer procurement would result in a setback in the Navy‘s goal of 355 ships and would have lasting impacts on the industrial base to build ships.
“We only have two yards that build the large surface combatants,” she said. “And Bath Iron Works in Maine has hired 3,000 additional shipbuilders since 2018. It’s working quickly to improve its productivity to reach two ships per year build rate, and it has a hot production line that is getting more efficient by the day. But if this budget passes, BIW is rushing toward a workload cliff that will lead to loss of jobs, reverse the productivity gains and weaken the industrial base. So that’s the other point that I would ask that you think about the importance of that productivity.”
Mr. Austin responded: “We have the dominant naval force on the face of the planet. It has been so in the past. It is so now. It will remain so going forward. And I agree with you that 355 ships is a good goal to shoot for, and I want to make sure that we have the right mix of capabilities. Size matters, but capabilities also matter.”
Others say the Navy does not have the track record to back the strategy.
“You see the same message over in the DoD budget and the Navy budget. And it’s quite surprising to me,” Mr. Sadler said. “This return to divest to invest, and there’s no good track record. The DoD has never done this well. It has always, rather than divest to invest, has always been divest to reduce. It has never worked the other way. And to assume that this time will be different is a bit of a fantasy. “
An important question looming over the discussion is how much time the U.S. has to respond to China‘s buildup.
When pressed, Adm. Gilday seemed to walk back the urgency of the threat that Adm. Davidson and Adm. Aquilino described.
“I think the key word that he used was ‘could,’” he said in response to a question from Mr. Rogers. “And I think that potential always exists, and I think we have to be ready any given day for everything.”
Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also has sounded alarms about China.
“I think China has a ways to go to develop the actual, no-kidding capability to conduct military operations to cease, through military means, the entire island of Taiwan, if they wanted to do that,” he recently told Senate appropriators. “Secondly is intent. … I think that there’s little intent right now, or motivation, [for China] to do it militarily. There’s no reason to do it militarily, and they know that. So, I think right now the probability is probably low in the immediate, near-term future. But I do think it is a core national interest of China to unite Taiwan.”
Still, the threat of a military engagement in the near term persists.
“This gets to the fundamental dilemma that you’re hearing expressed on both sides with regards to the overall budget,” said Rep. Mike Gallagher, a Wisconsin Republican on the Armed Services Committee. “We seem to be punting a larger Navy into the future on a 2045 timeline when we need to be planning around a 2025 timeline. And we need to be resourcing it correctly.”