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Milley defends shrinking Navy fleet: ‘Ship count is an incomplete metric’

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley this week defended the Biden administration’s budget plan for the next fiscal year that calls for building nine new ships and decommissioning 24, a plan that would drop the fleet from about 296 ships to about 280.

At a House Armed Services Committee hearing, Milley argued that ship count alone is not the best way of measuring the strength of a naval force, and said the budget calls for investments in ships that are much more capable of deterring U.S. allies.

“The conclusions from past force structure analyses have been fully considered and are simple: ship count is an incomplete metric, as it fails to fully capture the capability, payload capacity, and employment of ship classes in the fleet,” Milley said in his prepared remarks. “We must have the right ships, with the right crews, and the right capabilities in the theaters where they matter.”

Milley’s statement puts him squarely at odds with senior Navy officials, who have argued for the last few years that more ships are needed. Chief of Naval Operations Michael Gilday in February renewed his call for a growing fleet, and outlined a plan for as many as 360 manned vessels that would be backed up by 150 unmanned vessels.

Milley’s testimony is the latest piece of evidence that while the Navy keeps pushing for a larger fleet, the bottleneck is at the White House, which is conscious of pressure from Democrats in Congress to keep defense spending down.

During questioning, Rep. Rob Wittman (R-VA) rejected Milley’s analysis and said the administration is being “grossly irresponsible” for failing to ensure the U.S. fleet can keep up with China.

Wittman at one point argued that even if U.S. ships are more capable, they can only acquire so many targets at once and can only be in so many locations. But Milley insisted again that numbers alone don’t measure fleet strength.

“Capacity matters, numbers matter, mass matters,” Milley said. “But capability matters, and the ships that we’re retiring… the two dozen ships that are coming out of the inventory in this particular budget, the Navy says to us [come with] very high maintenance costs… and the costs are exceeding the benefits.”

“I’m always in favor of great numbers, I think that’s great, but I would bias toward capability rather than just sheer numbers,” Milley added.

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