Two Republican senators this week warned the Biden administration’s top military advisers that their plan to shrink the Navy fleet makes no sense if America is looking to keep pace with China.
At a May 3 Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing, Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) reminded Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley that while their latest budget calls for a reduction to 280 manned Navy ships by 2027, China’s fleet is expected to increase to 460 ships by 2030. Collins also said the Navy is relying too heavily on the promise of unmanned vessels, a complaint that both Republicans and Democrats have made.
“We need to be urgently investing in our shipbuilding capacity and fleet, not going in the opposite direction,” Collins said. “There’s real risk in relying on capabilities that won’t be ready until the 2030s to deter or defeat a Chinese threat that may materialize in the next five years.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) used the same numbers to argue that the U.S. is not keeping pace with China, even as Austin and Milley have called China our pacing threat.
“The bottom line is, we’re on the wrong path here in my humble opinion,” Graham said. “We’re spending below inflation, the Chinese are increasing their navy by 2032.”
“I don’t know what kind of world we’re looking at out there, but you’re seeing a different world than I am, and I hope we in a bipartisan way can correct this, because I think in really many ways this is dangerous,” Graham added.
Austin was never pressed for an answer to these complaints, but Milley used the hearing to downplay the idea that a shrinking fleet will make it harder to deter China’s interest in controlling Taiwan, and insisted that training and readiness can fill that gap.
“Sure, it would always be nice to have more ships,” Milley said. “But the fact of the matter is the most important thing is to have the ships that we do have, have them in a readiness status. Have them with the manning, the training, the equipment, have them in a very significant readiness status.”
Milley also said that if it comes to a conflict with China, the U.S. will be able to rely on a broader range of partners that share America’s interest in protecting Taiwan.
“We have allies and partners, China doesn’t,” he said. “The Japanese navy, the Australian navy, the other allies and partners that would probably work with the United States… that would make a significant difference.”
Finally, Milley implied that China may not be close to being able to impose its will on Taiwan.
“That is a very tall order, and it remains to be seen whether the Chinese will actually be able to execute that, the Chinese military, whether they will have that capability or not,” he said.
Congress is widely expected to ignore the administration’s proposal to cut ships from the fleet and once more provide additional funding to keep the Navy flat or growing modestly, as it did last year. In late April, a key House Democrat predicted that lawmakers would add money to the defense budget as it has for the last few years.
“If I was a betting man, I would say that we’re probably going to do that again,” said Rep. Joe Courtney (D-CT).
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