As great power competition continues to evolve between the US and China, many within America’s political and policy leadership have recognised that the US will need to expand its shipbuilding operations to keep pace with competitors and secure the global maritime commons.
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 US 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.
Echoing calls for an increase to the US shipbuilding enterprise in response to the rapidly evolving geo-political reality, US Republican senator for Georgia David Perdue jnr has recognised that the US can and should be doing more to keep pace with its rivals.
"Right now, the world is more dangerous than any time in my lifetime. The United States faces five major threats: China, Russia, Iran, North Korea and terrorism. We face those threats across five domains: air, land, sea, cyber space and space," Senator Perdue explains.
"The US Navy is one of the most effective tools we as a country have to maintain peace and stability around the world. Today, however, the Navy is in danger of being surpassed in capability by our near-peer competitors. On top of that, our competitors are becoming even more brazen in their attempts to challenge our Navy every day."
Political consistency in funding and goal a key challenge
There is an old saying that politics is the same no matter where you travel, and it appears that the challenges that have long plagued Australia's own naval shipbuilding endeavours have had an equally dramatic impact on the US Navy's attempts to modernise and recapitalise having a dramatic impact upon the capability of the force today.
Senator Perdue said, "To address this, the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act called for a 355-ship Navy to be built as soon as possible. This effort is extremely expensive: $31 billion per year for 30 years. This can’t be funded by new debt. We must reallocate resources to fund this priority.
"It is unclear at this time whether we will be able to achieve this goal, however, because Washington politicians have failed to provide consistent funding to our shipbuilding enterprise over the years.
"The last two Democratic presidents reduced military spending by 25 per cent. Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama did it. Also, since 1975, Congress has only funded the government on time on four occasions due to our broken budget process. As a result, Congress forces the military in most years to operate under continuing resolutions, which further restricts the Navy’s efforts to rebuild."
This echoes 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."
Inconsistency has harmed the industrial base, which in turn has harmed strategic capability
For Senator Perdue, this policy and budgetary inconsistency has had a dramatic impact on the US defence industrial base and its capacity to support the ambitious modernisation and recapitalisation efforts outlined as part of the 355-ship fleet plan.
Senator Perdue added, "According to a 2018 report from the Pentagon, the entire Department of Defense lost over 20,000 US-based industrial suppliers from 2000 to 2018.
"This means that, today, many shipbuilding components have just one US-based supplier, and others are entirely outsourced to other countries. This is one of the reasons why it is doubtful that we can reach 355 ships unless major changes are made immediately. If we don’t strengthen our industrial supplier base, there is simply no way to scale up ship production and maintenance capabilities to meet the requirements of a 355-ship fleet.
"The Department of Defense has not yet released this year’s 30-year shipbuilding plan as required by law, and time is running out to reach the Navy’s most recent projection of a 355-ship fleet by 2034.
"However, even if the Department of Defense has a solid, achievable plan to only reach 355 ships, I am skeptical that it will be enough. I am skeptical because America’s biggest long-term challenge, China, is already running laps around us on shipbuilding."
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 this investment, Senator Perdue highlights some major challenges in light of Beijing's own rapidly evolving shipbuilding capabilities, stating, "The Chinese Navy has 350 ships today, compared to our 300. By 2034, China is projected to have more than 425 ships. Even if we reached 355 ships, we would still have a 70-ship disadvantage, at the least.
"On top of that, because of the range restrictions in the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which just ended in 2019, China has surpassed, or 'out-sticked', us in some missile capabilities as well.
"There are several steps we can take to respond to these developments. For starters, we need to place greater emphasis on funding our shipbuilding enterprise. Also, we need to rebuild our industrial supply chains through consistent, robust funding and by eliminating continuing resolutions."
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".