Most Americans agree we need a strong Navy to defend the nation and deter our overseas adversaries. Someone should remind the Biden administration.
Last year, top Navy leaders said all the right things in testimony about their budget requirements. They said we need to push harder toward the congressionally mandated goal of a 355-ship fleet, as the Navy has been stuck at fewer than 300 ships for about 15 years.
Navy leaders smartly recognized that rising threats in the Mediterranean and the Pacific must be matched with a naval force that gives us leverage without committing us to another drawn-out land war.
But when the Biden administration presented its budget plan to Congress, lawmakers were confused. The White House’s budget called for building just eight ships and decommissioning 15. That plan would have lowered the total manned fleet from 296 vessels to 289, a step in the wrong direction.
It took a Democrat-led Congress the rest of the year and well into 2022 to sort out the mess. By the end of 2021, lawmakers passed a defense policy bill that authorized up to three new destroyers, not the lone destroyer recommended by the administration.
That same bill made it a lot harder for the Defense Department to decommission ships by forcing it to justify these decisions in detail.
Just last week, Congress finally passed a spending bill for the rest of the fiscal year that wiped away the administration’s paltry plans for the fleet. Under that bill, the Navy was told to build 13 new ships, not eight. That includes two destroyers, two attack submarines, two oilers, a frigate and six support ships.
That bill also prevents the administration from carrying out its plan to decommission three littoral combat ships. These ships have been a technical headache for the Navy, but the message was clear: We need all available ships. As a result, the Navy is now in a position to grow the fleet by at least one ship this year instead of watching it dwindle away.
It’s a great recognition from Congress that in a time of growing pressure from Russia, China, North Korea and Iran, now is no time to be taking away the tools we need to project American power.
It also raises a serious question: Why does Congress have to save the day? Why can’t the Biden administration stand up for the Navy and present a more realistic proposal for patrolling the world’s oceans, especially when Navy leaders have already said they need a bigger fleet?
Politics was a major reason last year. President Biden’s first budget proposal had to be accepted by several strong liberal voices from the Congress. Those outlying voices made noise about shrinking the defense budget, and the White House played along by ignoring moderate lawmakers and the Navy’s push for more ships and proposing a budget that cut Defense Department spending after inflation was factored in.
But 2022 is different. The White House should take notice that it underestimated Congress’s appetite for military spending. Republicans and Democrats alike bristled at the idea of a smaller fleet, especially as more and more potential uses of American sea power emerge.
This year, the White House should listen to the Navy’s recommendations and incorporate them into its 2023 budget plans. That means putting us on a path to a fleet that’s at least 355 ships strong, giving our Navy a chance to defend our interests and allies, and ensuring American leadership remains strong as we enter a new chapter of global uncertainty.
This op-ed by Jason Beardsley appeared in InsideSources on March 15, 2022.