Commentary

On fleet size, Congress should listen to the Navy’s leaders, not its planning documents

The Navy delivered two very different messages to Congress over the past several weeks, and America’s national security depends on whether lawmakers are smart enough to listen to the right one.

On paper, the Navy signaled that it’s time to get ready for a smaller fleet. In May, the Biden administration released a budget that roughly held the Navy’s budget flat and called for the decommissioning of 15 ships and outlined plans to build just eight new vessels.

Following that prescription would reduce the Navy’s current fleet from 296 to 289 ships, a move in the wrong direction from the long-held goal of a fleet of 355 manned ships.

In June, the Navy released a brief sketch of its future shipbuilding and acquisition plans, which dropped the goal of 355 manned ships and adopted a range of 321 to 372 ships. While the top end of that range holds the promise of a larger fleet, the fact that Biden’s budget plan is cutting ships indicates it’s much more likely that the Navy’s new goal is 321 vessels.

While these documents prescribe a smaller fleet, DOD and Navy leaders are telling a different story in person. They say more boats are needed if we’re going to keep up with China.

In June, Navy Vice Adm. James Kilby told senators the Navy is struggling to create the best plan for acquiring ships that it can given the realities of Biden’s tight budget. But he made it clear that the Navy still favors a larger fleet.

“If we’re going to pace the adversary, we need to have a bigger Navy,” Kilby said. “Our job is to create the best Navy we can with the budget we were allowed, and we tried to do that.”

Kilby also warned that a growing Chinese fleet means the U.S. will soon be left behind.

“They are a pacing threat,” Kilby said about China. “I would say shortly, we are not keeping up with them.”

Soon after, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday agreed that China now has a fleet of ships that “rival our own,” and said America’s naval advantage at sea won’t last much longer.

“Put simply, China has designed a blue water fleet to rival our own, and America’s enduring advantage at sea is eroding,” Gilday said.

And in a mid-June Senate hearing, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said a 355-fleet Navy is a “good goal to shoot for.” He said that just hours before the Navy scuttled the 355-fleet goal.

This is the riddle Congress must solve. Does it give weight to White House budget documents and policy prescriptions that blandly trim back our fleet with no explanation and show no interest in finding tradeoffs that would help restore America’s naval might?

Or does it listen to the individual men and women of the Navy who see our new challenges on the horizon and know we need a larger fleet to meet those challenges?

Anyone who would choose committee-driven wonkery over our own sailors is a poor student of the history of America, which was delivered in no small part because our great heroes planned for all eventualities, and the nation was smart enough to let them lead.

Just weeks before he would cross the Delaware and surprise Hessian troops at Trenton, Gen. George Washington had the foresight to secure all boats and craft and put them under “proper guards” so they could be used by Revolutionary Forces, not British troops or their allies. On Christmas Night, his planning paid off — he stole across the river during a raging winter storm and delivered the first military win for the weary Continental Army.

We should take courage that our situation is far less uncertain than Washington’s was when he led shivering, demoralized colonists across the Delaware. We are, at least for now, the world’s leading naval power, which is led by the descendants of our founders who love America and spend their time thinking about how to defend her.

Congress called those men to testify, and their testimony was clear — domination at sea can only be assured with more ships. Lawmakers need to prioritize the testimony of these leaders over the cold counsel of the bureaucracy, and act.

Jason Beardsley (@JasonRBeardsley) is executive director of the Association of the United States Navy.

Editor’s note: This is an op-ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times senior managing editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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