China and Russia have dramatically accelerated their naval shipbuilding and modernization programs in recent years while the U.S. has struggled to improve its capacity for war-fighting missions and been tagged with a poor readiness rating from national security analysts.
The Chinese have made particularly notable strides. Their maritime buildup made global headlines a year ago when Pentagon officials sounded the alarm that Beijing’s total fleet of about 350 warships had surpassed the roughly 300 maintained by Washington.
The American force still vastly outstrips China’s in terms of power projection. The U.S. has 11 active aircraft carriers, and China has brought just two online since 2012.
The Chinese Communist Party, however, makes no secret of its goal to build a “world-class” military by 2050. U.S. analysts are increasingly wary that Washington will struggle to keep pace with China’s rapidly expanding shipbuilding operations.
“They’ve got a lot of shipyards and a lot of capacity,” said Brent Sadler, a retired U.S. naval officer and analyst with The Heritage Foundation. “They’re building lots of ships.”
Mr. Sadler authored the U.S. Navy section of The Heritage Foundation’s 2022 Index of U.S. Military Strength, an analysis updated annually.
For the second year in a row, the index gave the U.S. sea service overall scores of “marginal” and “trending toward weak,” with a specific naval capacity score of “weak.”
“A battle force consisting of 400 manned ships is required for the U.S. Navy to do what is expected of it today,” the index concluded. “The Navy’s current battle force fleet of 297 ships and intensified operational tempo combine to reveal a Navy that is much too small relative to its tasks.”
With regard to capability, the index said the Navy’s technological edge is “narrow[ing] against peer competitors China and Russia.”
“The combination of a fleet that is aging faster than old ships are being replaced and the rapid growth of competitor navies with modern technologies does not bode well for U.S. naval power,” the index said.
Mr. Sadler told The Washington Times in an interview that a lack of ships is the most obvious reason for the poor rating. He suggested that the U.S. can reverse downward trends in capacity and capability, but not without costs.
“If you put the demand out to build more ships quicker, that will force capital investment in the shipyards to have a larger workforce and a larger capacity, which we will need,” Mr. Sadler said. “If you don’t have enough ships, you overwork your crews.”
Although debates about Pentagon budgets are already biting, the bottom line, Mr. Sadler said, is that U.S. political leaders need to get serious about “making significant investments” in Navy capacity over the coming years.
The 2022 Index of U.S. Military Strength put it more bluntly. “Depending on the Navy’s ability to fund more aggressive growth options and service life extensions, its capacity score could be lower in the next edition,” Mr. Sadler wrote in the index.
A Navy spokesman declined to comment on specifics of The Heritage Foundation analysis, although Pentagon officials have acknowledged that funding availability is the obvious problem.
During an Oct. 27 online briefing sponsored by the Navy League, Rear Adm. John Gumbleton, deputy assistant Navy secretary for budget, said officials are juggling multiple issues on the budget and modernization.
He said the development of Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines is soaking up research dollars. At the same time, he added, officials are trying to prioritize investments in a next-generation, large surface combatant ship while recapitalizing century-old dry dock facilities.
“All these are Navy challenges and our cross to bear, so to speak,” Adm. Gumbleton said. “But in a capital-intensive service where you’re trying to keep production of destroyers, frigates and aircraft carriers, it just speaks to the enormous challenge of trying to do this in a smart fashion.”
Republicans have said the Biden administration’s $753 billion request for the Pentagon’s 2022 budget is inadequate in the face of growing threats from China and Russia. Although the figure represents an increase from the Trump administration’s last defense budget of $740 billion, Republican lawmakers said it amounts to a cut when accounting for inflation.
Concern about the Navy budget specifically has been bipartisan in the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives. In September, the House Armed Services Committee secured a $24 billion increase to the Navy’s $163 billion budget.
“The president’s defense budget fails to adequately address the rising threats of China, Iran and Russia, and I will not hesitate to break with my party if it’s in the best interest of our national security,” said Rep. Elaine Luria, Virginia Democrat and retired naval officer.
The Heritage Foundation index, meanwhile, outlined how the Navy’s challenges are not merely tied to matching potential adversaries ship for ship.
At the height of the Cold War in the 1980s, the Navy had nearly 600 ships and kept about 100 deployed. By July this year, the fleet had dwindled to 297 warships, of which 83 were at sea or otherwise deployed, according to the index.
“The commanding officer’s discretionary time for training and crew familiarization is a precious commodity that is made ever scarcer by the increasing operational demands on fewer ships,” the index said.
Mr. Sadler said that reality adds strain to the whole service and increases the risk of mishaps.
In 2017, the USS John S. McCain and the USS Fitzgerald were involved in collisions that resulted in the deaths of 17 sailors. Investigators said a lack of adequate seamanship and navigation skills played critical roles in both incidents.
The Heritage Foundation index said the incidents highlighted the importance of unit readiness and what can happen when combatant commanders focus more on immediate demands.
“If you don’t have enough ships and you don’t give the commanding officer enough [time] to get the crews proficient on fighting the ship, you have problems like the Fitzgerald and the McCain,” Mr. Sadler told The Times. “You need more numbers — not just to meet some potential war with the Chinese and the Russians — but also [to] provide commanders with enough discretionary time so they can go out, qualify their sailors and officers, and practice together.”