WASHINGTON: Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va., a retired Navy commander turned lawmaker for a Virginia district buoyed by Norfolk Naval Shipyard, is one of a few elected officials in Washington who can talk about specific military capabilities with firsthand knowledge.
That experience led her to a realization during her first term in Congress when the House Armed Services Committee began its annual hearings to discuss the Pentagon’s budget request.
“You’re listening to the service chiefs and the combatant commanders [say what’s in their budget] but really not explaining why there was no real strategy behind it,” Luria told a group of reporters and analysts during an event at the Hudson Institute last week. “Why isn’t there a strategy” that says, “this is what’s happening in the Pacific and this is why we need more ships.”
For four years, military officials and the Trump administration made a major push for a larger Navy shipbuilding budget, with plans at one point calling for a Navy in excess of 500 ships. But the political winds in Washington have turned, and President Joe Biden’s new budget request gets nowhere near the annual increase defense hawks call for just to keep pace with inflation.
Which means that as the Navy gathers this week for the annual Sea Air Space conference, service leaders need to start grappling with an important question: What will the Navy do if the money everyone says it needs for a bigger fleet just never materializes?
In interviews with Breaking Defense, analysts said the budget squeeze will lead to more proposals to retire ships early and expressed concern this year’s environment could result in an extended continuing resolution that further compounds the Navy’s shipbuilding challenges
“The Navy’s going to have a huge problem,” Mark Cancian, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said of the pending flat-lined budgets.
He predicted the service will start retiring some of its oldest ships in hopes of recouping maintenance dollars. The Navy is already doing that in the current budget request, asking to retire numerous cruisers as well as some Littoral Combat Ships.
During congressional hearings, Navy officials have been straightforward that some of those retirements — if not all of them — are financially, not strategically, driven. It’s not a new request and a group of lawmakers, Luria included, remain strongly opposed to it.
Cancian also said there will be a bureaucratic argument that the number of ships in the fleet is a bad metric to measure the Navy’s strength. That discussion too has played out in congressional hearings. “Everyone agrees it’s a bad metric, but everyone uses it because it’s just so simple,” he said.
The service may also push to buy larger numbers of small vessels such as frigates or unmanned ships to buoy the ship count metric, Cancian added.
Mackenize Eaglen, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said she is less worried about the amount of money the Pentagon receives, but rather when they get any funding at all.
“The issue this year is the potential for nine-month or even longer CRs … and no enactment of the authorization bill partly because it’ll get swept up in those larger political debates,” Eaglen said.
Operating under a continuing resolution is not new for the Pentagon, but Eaglen argued this year is unique compared to previous budget cycles. In the event of a continuing resolution, agencies are funded at prior-year levels. That could be appealing to Republicans who have already seen non-defense agencies receive an influx of funding through the coronavirus relief packages, Eaglen said.
“Throwing that much uncertainty into the system is one of the worst things you can do for shipbuilding,” she said of the potential for a yearlong CR.
For the time being, the odds of a defense authorization or appropriations bill “anytime soon” are not good, Eaglen said.
“This could change dramatically in three months, and I’ll be eating my words, but we just don’t know enough right now,” she said. “What I’m looking at right now is not — it’s unlike anything I’ve seen in 10 years.”
Luria, a former surface warfare officer, argued during the Hudson event that the biggest issue with the Navy’s recent budget requests is the sea service lacks a cohesive strategy that explains its goals and how it will meet them with the capabilities outlined in the budget.
“We haven’t defined what we want to do,” she said in response to a question about how the Pentagon should balance the need for capabilities with the realities of budget constraints. She cited remarks from the Army’s chief of staff about “winning” against China.
“The Chief of Staff of the Army recently testified that ‘winning with China means not fighting China,’” she wrote in a recent post for the Center for International Maritime Security. “I happen to agree with him, except, that was not the question — which is precisely the problem. We cannot define what ‘winning’ means. When one cannot define winning, one cannot write a strategy.”
Asked by a reporter who should be responsible for writing and following a new maritime strategy, Luria said the current law makes it impossible for the Navy to create and follow a singular strategy because the Pentagon’s strategic goals reside with the Joint Staff and operational and theater goals are with the combatant commanders. Changing that dynamic will require a lot of legislative work by Congress, she added.
But as anecdotal evidence of the problem, Luria said she had asked relevant officials this question: Has Adm. John Aquilino, commander of US Indo-Pacific Command, personally briefed President Joe Biden?
“You would think that the combatant commander in the theater where we are focusing the most of the president’s budget — over $700 billion — to spend to defend our country [against adversaries] in the Pacific, the INDOPACOM commander would come brief the president,” she said.
The answer, according to the people Luria spoke with, is that that has not happened yet.