(Updates with administration officials’ shipbuilding priorities in 12th paragraph.)
The White House budget office is planning to advance a proposal to pay for a future 500-ship Navy without significantly boosting the national security budget or cutting other military services’ funding.
The Trump administration is looking to boost the shipbuilding budget by about $10 billion to a high $20 billion range, according to a senior administration official who asked not to be named in order to discuss plans that havr yet to be made public.
The official didn’t offer an exact number because the plans are still in flux. The Navy’s shipbuilding budget historically ranges between $17 billion and $19 billion, the official said. The Navy has about 299 ships today.
The administration is weighing whether to release its budget blueprint for next fiscal year before President Donald Trump leaves office, particularly to show how it would back the new naval proposal that calls for a mix of manned and robotic ships by 2045. Whether President-elect Joe Biden would continue on a similar path remains to be seen. Still, the proposal could serve as a roadmap for Congress, where shipbuilding has some vocal supporters.
“There is widespread agreement that the Navy is one of our fundamental strengths. We need more ships, not fewer,” Rep. Mac Thornberry, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee said Tuesday at the Heritage Foundation.
“We need to work through the characteristics of those ships — manned versus unmanned, the smaller carriers versus the larger carriers,” said Thornberry of Texas, who’s retiring. “That will be one of the tasks of the new Congress to look more deeply into those plans and try to help develop a roadmap that we can stick with.”
To boost the shipbuilding budget by about $10 billion, the Trump administration is seeking to curtail war spending, particularly money included in the overseas contingency operations account that should be spent within the Pentagon’s regular, or base, budget, the official said.
About 70% of the $69 billion in war funding for fiscal 2021 is designated for base-budget and enduring activities, such as regular maintenance activities that support overseas operations and are likely to continue regardless of the size of the forces deployed overseas, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
Designating discretionary spending in this way is meant to get around the funding caps set by the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2019 (Public Law 116-37), which expires this fiscal year. For fiscal 2022 through 2025, when those caps will no longer be in effect, the Pentagon plans to request money for those activities in the base budget.
According to Pentagon budget estimates, $701.9 billion would be slated for regular budget activities in fiscal 2022, and $20 billion for overseas contingencies. In fiscal 2023, those numbers would be $717.1 billion and $20 billion. Projections to reflect the new naval strategy could change the base numbers.
Former Defense Secretary Mark Esper, whom Trump fired earlier this month, laid out the broad strokes of a plan for the Navy to buy 500 manned and robotic ships by 2045. The Navy would reach a fleet of 355 traditional warships by 2035 under the plan, which analysts already view as a hard-to-reach goal.
Russel Vought, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, made shipbuilding his priority and has traveled around the country to visit shipyards — a rare move for a budget director, the official said. National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien also visited shipyards in Maine and Wisconsin and laid out the vision for a bigger Navy.
Included in the plan would be buying three Virginia-class submarines made by General Dynamics Corp. and Huntington Ingalls Industries Inc. a year; and eight to 11 nuclear aircraft carriers, alongside as many as six “light” carriers.
The Navy’s plan, if it sticks in a new administration, will likely be scrutinized in the House and Senate. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, expressed concern with the escalating costs of new classes of ships.
The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee pushed back on the Pentagon’s plan to build a 500-ship Navy by 2045 saying that it would be “utterly nonsensical to obsess about numbers.”
Spending more money to “buy more stuff, and we’ll therefore be better” is a mistake for “a whole series of reasons,” Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) told reporters on a press call in October. “I don’t think that makes us stronger.”
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