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Expect Congress to bail out the Navy… again

The chairman of a House committee with jurisdiction over the Navy says Congress will once more ride to the administration’s rescue and provide a budget that avoids a perilous drop in the size of the Navy fleet.

Rep. Joe Courtney (D-CT), who spoke at a Hudson Institute event on Friday, said that while the Biden administration put forward a plan that would shrink the Navy, Congress would do what it can to avoid a declining naval presence.

“If you look at the last three years, four years, the fact is… Congress has in fact plussed up the shipbuilding account,” Courtney said. “If I was a betting man, I would say that we’re probably going to do that again.”

Courtney chairs the House Armed Services subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces, and last year worked with Democrats and Republicans to rewrite a Navy budget plan that called for a seven-ship reduction in the fleet. By providing more funding for shipbuilding and preventing the Navy from retiring three ships, Congress created a net gain of one ship for the Navy.

This year, the Navy put forward a plan to build nine new ships and decommission 24, which would result in a net loss of 15 ships. Courtney signaled that Congress would again fight efforts to decommission so many ships without a plan to replace them.

“If I was a betting man, again, I would not tell people that that’s likely to happen,” Courtney said.

Courtney said the view in Congress is that readiness problems and the expanding mission of deterring both China and Russia means that now is not the time to reduce the fleet any further from the 297 vessels it has.

“There’s no question they are stretched thin,” he said of the Navy. “We need to increase capacity and we need to make sure that we have a fleet to counter and meet the threat that’s out there.”

Democrats are in lockstep with Republicans who have been pushing to put the fleet on a trajectory for growth. Rep. Rob Wittman (R-VA) is the top Republican on Courtney’s subcommittee, and he said at the same event that he fears the Biden administration is making it difficult for the Navy to face down China’s growing naval prowess.

“It’s very disturbing to me that the Navy sees the path forward to counter this growing capability and capacity, their counter is to that is to reduce our capability and capacity,” Wittman said. Like Courtney, Wittman said he’s just as worried about the failure to push for more shipbuilding as it is about the Navy’s push to decommission so many ships.

“You can’t fight something with nothing,” he said. “Not having a ship there is not an alternative… just because we have an older ship we need to get rid of and nothing to replace it.”

The Biden administration’s latest shipbuilding plan laid out three options for Congress, two of which allow for minimal growth in the fleet and one more expensive proposal that would give the Navy 363 manned vessels by 2045. But that plan drew criticism from both sides for failing to lay out a firm vision on what the Navy needs to do its job.

Wittman said even proposing a low-end number of 318 vessels by 2045 is essentially telling Congress that if doesn’t need the ships, when top Navy leaders have said they do.

“When you say 318, what you’re telling Congress… is the lowest common denominator is OK, it’s acceptable,” Wittman said. “I would say it is not.”

Both lawmakers said Russia’s war against Ukraine provides some lessons for America. Courtney said Ukraine’s resistance to Russian troops shows that “morale and commitment by the country itself has value that you almost can’t put a price tag on.”

Wittman said the war shows the value of the U.S. training and equipment that was directed to Ukraine’s forces and said America should find ways to accelerate similar efforts with Taiwan’s forces.

“I think that we ought to be doing much the same in Taiwan,” he said. “I know it will infuriate the Chinese but it will make the Chinese take a step back.”

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