With budget cuts and tradeoffs being discussed among the naval community at the Navy League’s annual Sea-Air-Space gathering this week, Congress is set to examine the Navy’s 30-year shipbuilding plan. When the Obama administration unveiled new strategic guidance for the military that emphasized the importance of the Asia-Pacific to America’s enduring interests, many assumed that the Navy and Air Force would reap the benefits. But the president’s budget proposal for 2013 shrinks and ages both of these services and their fleets of ships and aircraft.
Like the administration’s new guidance, the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review Independent Panel also recognized the importance of the Pacific, stating that “the force structure in the Asia-Pacific needs to be increased.” However, the bipartisan commission recommended increasing the size of the fleet to 346 ships and investing in new capabilities to counter anti-access technologies, for example.
The new plan shows a fleet averaging a size of roughly 298 ships over the next three decades, down from 306 ships in a plan the administration released only six months ago. The new plan kills the Navy’s long-standing goal for a 313-ship fleet, the size considered the floor by the last CNO.
The Navy’s smaller fleet will also be an older one because the new plan also builds fewer ships. Whereas last year the administration planned to build 57 ships over the next five years, the current five year build rate is for 41 new ships.
Two trends exacerbate the older and smaller fleet of today. With reduced construction, the Navy is planning to extend the service lives of select surface combatants in order to keep the fleet from shrinking beyond an acceptable limit. The problem is that the Navy is relying on unrealistic lifecycle estimates for its surface fleet. In order for the plan to work as hoped, cruisers would need to be funded and maintained to stay in service for 35 years and destroyers for 40. These estimates are fantasies. The Navy is currently retiring seven cruisers over the next two years with an average age of just over 20 years. Current cruiser retirements are a full 15 years earlier than the magical new service life assumption found in the latest shipbuilding plan.
Compounding these challenges is the possibility that the Navy may not build as many ships as it hopes. That is because the 30-year shipbuilding plan estimates that the Navy needs to spend $16.8 billion annually on shipbuilding, but the current budget only allocates $12.7 billion a year for this account through FY 2017. What the Navy is effectively advertising is that the “check is in the mail.” The promise of future investment is a defense budgeting trick as old as the FYDP. But the new shipbuilding plan emphasizes retiring existing ships from the fleet over new construction in the near term, retiring seven more ships over the next five years than it builds.
Either the Navy is retiring these ships too early or its lifecycle estimates are hopelessly optimistic. But service leaders cannot have it both ways. Similarly, the administration cannot realistically “pivot” to Asia—a region defined by the “tyranny of distance”—and cut the fleet at the same time.
Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow at AEI. She is testifying about the Navy’s 30-Year Shipbuilding Plan before the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee this afternoon. Click here to watch her testimony live at 2:30 P.M.