In the recently released Navigation Plan, Adm. Michael Gilday, the chief of naval operations, presents a clear, articulate explanation of where the Navy needs to invest and how it will need to operate to compete with rivals like China. Unfortunately, the plan appears to lack urgency and support both within the White House and inside the Pentagon—meaning if this plan is to succeed, it will need to attract strong support from Congress.
Compared to the combined threat from Russia and China, recent defense budgets are anemic and reveal a grave misunderstanding of the present and future dangers facing our armed forces. China is the greatest threat, one which must be constrained by a strong Navy. Recognizing this, Congress essentially overrode the last two defense budgets submitted by the president. Lawmakers then proceeded to dramatically raise the fiscal year 2022 defense budget; this year, Congress is likely to raise the president’s $773 billion request to somewhere in the range of $839 billion to $850 billion.
A major focus from lawmakers is making sure that if the administration is unwilling to invest in the Navy we need, Congress will act. Since 2016, there have been repeated, bipartisan calls for a larger fleet of 355 ships, but there is a growing sense that even that may not be enough—last month, the Navy submitted a classified report to Congress, and word on the street is that it called for a fleet of 373 manned ships to meet peacetime and wartime needs.
In the realm of public documents, we turn to Gilday’s Navigation Plan, which calls for a fleet of over 350 manned ships, 150 large, unmanned vessels and 3,000 aircraft. It’s a good target as a baseline, but the CNO wants to reach those numbers by mid-2040—and the timeline is problematic.
Shooting for a goal 20 years out doesn’t align with assessments from the last and current Indo-Pacific Commanders, nor from former CIA Director and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. All three contend that Chinese aggression may break out into a hot war this decade. At this year’s Aspen Security Forum, CIA Director Bill Burns accentuated the urgency saying, “The risks of that [China attempting to assert control over Taiwan] become higher, it seems to us, the further into this decade that you get.”
This disconnect between the need for urgent action and a response with a 20-year timeline is the weakest aspect of Gilday’s otherwise tightly crafted Navigation Plan. Its strongest points are the way it lays out what the Navy is doing and learning to improve readiness, expand capacity, modernize capabilities and bolster its workforce. Yet, without the resources needed, delivering on this aspiration is in doubt.
Missing in the plan are details on how the Navy will reorganize and adjust institutionally to the challenges of China. For example, the “Our Response” section is silent on how and where the Navy will campaign forward. Given China’s recent missile launches and increased military activity around Taiwan, identifying this as a key region of concern would seem to be a no-brainer. Add to this tensions over disputed waters in the South China Sea and the war in Ukraine, and it shouldn’t be a stretch to assume the Eastern Mediterranean and South China Sea are key regions, as well. Yet these, too, go unmentioned.
If the Navy is to enhance its presence in these key regions this decade, it will need to think differently. To enhance operational focus in the South China Sea, for example, the previous Secretary of the Navy, Kenneth Braithwaite, called for re-establishing a First Fleet in the region. The Navy will also need a global campaign plan to inform its forward presence, as Capt. Joshua Taylor recently argued in USNI’s Proceedings magazine.
The Navigation Plan is also silent on adjustments to the numbered fleet structure and formulation of new campaign plans. This is unfortunate but does not diminish the fact that this is the best articulation in many years of where the Navy’s senior officer thinks the service needs to head.
Yet, helpful as the plan is, the fact remains that, without more energetic support from the administration, it will remain up to Congress to ensure the nation is building, sustaining, and operating the Navy we need.
Congress has been thrust into this role before, most notably in the lead up to World War Two. The Naval Act of 1938, which directed a just-in-time 20 percent growth of the fleet, has been credited with the eventual victory in the Pacific. Congress today needs to do much the same again, establishing year-by-year shipbuilding goals that will get the Navy where it needs to be within this decade—not 20-plus years out. Lawmakers should also resist the premature retirement of warships—something the Pentagon has promoted as a cost-saving measure. Decommissioning must be less than the annual rate of commissioning of new ships—meaning when a new ship is actually delivered, not just put on the schedule.
And yes, of course, Congress will also need to provide the funding needed to meet the higher operational costs and accelerated shipbuilding goals, as well as to accelerate munitions manufacturing to arm the fleet.
That’s a lot to accomplish, and members all have their own constituent priorities that will compete for attention. But the threat before the nation requires timely action, and the current trajectory simply doesn’t match reality. The NAVPLAN helps chart an appropriate course, but it must be biased to before 2027.
This piece originally appeared in Breaking Defense