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More ships a focus for US budget, but 20% cut reveals mixed messages

The future John F. Kennedy CVN 79 under construction at Huntington Ingalls Newport News Shipbuilding (Source: John Whalen/Huntington Ingalls)

US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has confirmed he is committed to a bigger fleet, but both bureaucrats and senior service personnel are concerned about the nation’s capacity to fund the necessary shipbuilding, with 10 new ship builds slashed over the next five years, despite renewed concerns about a ‘hollow force.

US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has confirmed he is committed to a bigger fleet, but both bureaucrats and senior service personnel are concerned about the nation’s capacity to fund the necessary shipbuilding, with 10 new ship builds slashed over the next five years, despite renewed concerns about a ‘hollow force.

Naval power has always played a critical role in the way great powers interact – competitions to design the most powerful warships often characterising the great power competitions of the past.


The decades leading up to the outbreak of the First World War saw an unprecedented competition between the UK and German Empire, with much of the emphasis placed on Dreadnought battleships echoing a similar, albeit smaller, naval arms race gathering steam between the US and China.

Further challenging the previously unrivalled dominance of the global maritime commons by the United States is the resurgence of an increasingly modernised Russian Navy and the proliferation of advanced, increasingly capable weapons systems, once previously only the domain of global powers. 

These factors, combined with a period of sequestration during the Obama administration and rising funding challenges, have given rise to growing concerns about the US Navy developing a 'hollow force', one that has a large fleet, with little to no manpower to support the tactical and strategic requirements of America's national security doctrines. 

Despite President Donald Trump's commitment to achieving a 355-ship fleet, capable of guaranteeing global maritime security, freedom of navigation and stability in the face of increased peer and near-peer competitors – the funding question remains an important one for consideration. 

Indeed recently, Defense Secretary Mark Esper explained the importance of balancing readiness with force and platform modernisation to the Senate Armed Services Committee:


"This need to balance current readiness with modernisation is the department's central challenge and will require strong leadership, open and continuous dialogue with others, and the courage to make tough decisions."

In spite of these factors, the President has sought to capitalise on a surging US economy to pass yet another increase for the US defence budget – expected to see the Pentagon receiving US$738 billion for FY2020-21.

While the figure is less than the US$750 billion President Trump called for earlier this year, the US$738 billion figure will still see a major ramp up in the modernisation, recapitalisation and expansion of the US military at a time of increasing great power rivalry. 

Committed to 355 fleet, working out how to get there

Despite the concerns regarding the potential for a 'hollow force', Secretary Esper speaking to DefenseNews articulated his commitment and ambitions to getting the US Navy to a 355-ship fleet by 2030, with an aim to achieve a much higher number in response to the mounting global challenges. 

"To me that's where we need to push. We need to push much more aggressively. That would allow us to get our numbers up quickly, and I believe that we can get to 355, if not higher, by 2030," Secretary Esper said. 

This statement echoes the statements made by acting US Navy Secretary, Thomas Modly, who stated, "It was also the President’s goal during the election. We have a goal of 355, we don’t have a plan for 355. We need to have a plan, and if it’s not 355, what’s it going to be and what’s it going to look like?"

Discussing the composition of this future force, Secretary Esper posited some interesting ideas for consideration, leveraging advances in unmanned and autonomous/semi-autonomous ships to ensure the US Navy meets its force structure obligations.

"What we have to tease out is, what does that future fleet look like? I think one of the ways you get there quickly is moving toward lightly manned [ships], which over time can be unmanned," Secretary Esper added. 

"We can go with lightly manned ships, get them out there. You can build them so they’re optionally manned and then, depending on the scenario or the technology, at some point in time they can go unmanned."

Despite more money, there will be significant shipbuilding cuts

Despite a record level of investment in the US Armed Forces, the US Navy's shipbuilding budget is dominated by expensive, big-ticket acquisition programs, namely the new Gerald R Ford Class aircraft carriers, the Columbia Class ballistic missile submarines and Virginia Class attack submarines. 

Indeed, the FY2020-21 budget request seeks US$19.9 billion ($29.6 billion) for shipbuilding, approximately US$4.1 billion ($6.1 billion) more than the levels enacted for the FY2019-20 budget request. 

As part of the Navy's budget request, the service asked for two Arleigh Burke Class destroyers, a single Columbia Class ballistic missile submarine and Virginia Class attack submarine, one FFG(X) future frigate, a single LPD-17 amphibious transport dock and two towing and salvage ships. 

The US$4.1 billion ($6.1 billion) reduction saw a cut to both the Virginia and FFG(X) programs, each of which were expected to see two ships funded in the FY2020-21 budget – moving forward, the longer-term budget cuts will also see the US Navy cut five Flight III Arleigh Burke variants. 

Additionally, the US Navy's budget requests US$2.5 billion ($3.7 billion) for aircraft acquisition over the 2020 decade, requesting 'just' US$17.2 billion ($25.6 billion) – which would deliver 24 Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornets, 21 F-35Cs (split between the Navy and Marine Corps) and four E-2D Hawkeye aircraft. 

Despite concerns about a small number of increasingly expensive platforms – think the troubled Zumwalt and Ford classes – US Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michael Gilday remains optimistic about the US Navy's capacity to adapt and win the fight. 

"Our fleet is too small, and our capabilities are stacked on too few ships that are too big. And that needs to change over time. [But] we have made significant investments in aircraft carriers and we’re going to have those for a long time," ADM Gilday stated. 

"Look, people don’t give us enough credit for the gray matter between our ears, and there are some very smart people we have thinking about how we fight better. The fleet that we have today, 75 per cent of it, will be the fleet we have in 2030. So, we have to think about how we get more out of it."

Your thoughts

As an island nation, Australia is defined by its relationship with the ocean. Maritime power projection and sea control play a pivotal role in securing Australia’s economic and strategic security as a result of the intrinsic connection between the nation and Indo-Pacific Asia’s strategic sea-lines-of-communication in the 21st century.

Further compounding Australia's precarious position is an acceptance that 'Pax Americana', or the post-Second World War 'American Peace' is over.

In response, Australia will require a uniquely Australian approach and recognition that the nation is now solely responsible for the security of its national interests, with key alliances serving a secondary, complementary role to the broader debate. 

Australia cannot simply rely on the US, or Japan, or the UK, or France to guarantee the economic, political and strategic interests of the nation. China is already actively undermining the regional order through its provocative actions in the South China Sea and its rapid military build-up.

To assume that Australia will remain immune to any hostilities that break out in the region is naive at best and criminally negligent at worst.

As a nation, Australia cannot turn a blind eye to its own geopolitical, economic and strategic backyard, both at a traditional and asymmetric level, lest we see a repeat of Imperial Japan or the Iranian Revolution arrive on our doorstep.

It is clear from history that appeasement does not work, so it is time to avoid repeating the mistakes of our past and be fully prepared to meet any challenge.  

There is an old Latin adage that perfectly describes Australia’s predicament and should serve as sage advice: "Si vis pacem, para bellum" – "If you want peace, prepare for war". 

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More ships a focus for US budget, but 20% cut reveals mixed messages
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