SECDEF Esper Holds Back 30-Year Shipbuilding Outlook, New 355-Ship Plan Ahead of HASC Testimony

February 25, 2020 1:23 PM
Secretary of Defense Mark Esper delivers a speech to students and faculty of the U.S. Naval War College on Aug. 27, 2019. US Navy Photo

Release of the Navy’s long-range shipbuilding plan and service’s plan to grow to at least 355 ships is on indefinite hold on orders from Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, USNI News has learned.

Four sources familiar with the move told USNI News that following a Friday meeting between Navy officials and Esper, the Defense Secretary ordered to hold the release to Congress of the legally required long-range shipbuilding plan and the latest force structure assessment.

Esper and Navy leaders are set to testify this week before the House Armed Services Committee on the Pentagon and Department of the Navy budget requests, respectively, before members have seen either the long-range shipbuilding plan or the FSA, several legislative sources confirmed to USNI News.

The decision from Esper was made on Monday while the Navy was set to sign out the latest force structure assessment that would chart the service’s path to build at least a 355-ship Navy. The increase in hulls was a key national security promise President Donald Trump made during his 2016 campaign. As of Monday, the Navy had 295 ships.

Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday have both said the new FSA would call for at least 355 manned ships in addition to new classes of unmanned vessels.

An Office of the Secretary of Defense spokesperson acknowledged a request for comment by USNI News on Tuesday but did not immediately provide a statement.

Navy officials did not immediately return a USNI News request for comment.

Though there is a requirement in law to deliver the long-range shipbuilding plan with the budget to Congress, the final version has often delivered days or weeks after the intial budget submission. There is no legal requirement to present the FSA to Congress, USNI News understands. A defense official told USNI News on Tuesday delivery of the plan to Congress was pending.

While both Esper and Navy leadership have committed to the 355 goal, the service presented a flat budget shipbuilding budget request for Fiscal Year 2021 that critics have said would barely give the Navy the funds to maintain a 300-ship fleet, much less grow by almost 60 hulls.

“It’s impossible to square this plan with the administration’s National Defense Strategy and its claim that it supports a 355-ship fleet,” House Armed Services seapower and projection forces subcommittee chairman Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.) said when the budget request was released earlier this month.
“At $19.9 billion, this request is nearly 17 percent lower than current funding levels and truthfully proposes just six combatant vessels – the lowest level in a decade.”

Anticipating the flat budget, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) released legislation this year to help fund the Navy’s shipbuilding accounts to help get to the 355 ship goal.

“In the near term, the Securing the Homeland by Increasing our Power on the Seas (SHIPS) Implementation Act would empower our Navy to reach its 355-ship goal by authorizing the procurement of specific vessels and cutting costs. Over time, my proposal would help to decrease risk for the Navy and provide greater certainty for the industrial base,” he said in a release.

With the FY 2021 budget, the Navy delivered a five-year outlook that called for the construction of 13 fewer ships than it had projected in its FY 2020 budget, according to a Congressional Research Service report released last week on Navy Force Structure. The Navy is struggling not only to fund new iron but to clear an ever-growing backlog of maintenance and readiness problems it accrued during its supporting role for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Navy’s head budget officer told reporters earlier this month that the service was trying to balance top acquisition priorities of the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine with the ongoing readiness issues and the White House requirements for new ships.

“We have a flat topline and we’re trying to fund Columbia class, which is our highest priority. Columbia is going to result in consuming over 20 percent of our SCN (shipbuilding) account as we get towards the end of the [five-year Future Years Defense Program], and as we get to serial production (in 2026) it will be over 30 percent. So I think that’s part of the issue, trying to address that inside of the Navy budget,” Rear Adm. Randy Crites, the deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for budget. said on Feb. 10.

“It’s what we can afford,” he said.
“We can’t hollow out the force, we have to continue with the vector we’re on to recover our readiness. … At the end of the day, with a flat topline that’s not even keeping up with inflation, and much more complex ships that we’re bringing on – they’re more expensive and they’re more expensive to maintain … capable capacity … is what we’re going to be able to afford.”

For his part, Esper has said the Navy will have to figure out how to handle the Columbia-class program.

“Clearly the Columbia is a big bill, but it’s a big bill we have to pay,” he told Defense News. “That’s the Navy’s bill. The Air Force has a bill called bombers and ground-based strategic deterrent, so that’s a bill they have to pay.”

For its part, the Navy announced a new cost savings drive to find $40 billion in budget savings to pay for the new fleet.

“We must find savings within the Department to reinvest in the kind of decisive naval force that will provide for our nation’s future economic and political security,” Modly wrote last week.
“The bottom line is that we need to find at least $40 billion in real line-of-accounting savings to fund the development, construction, and sustainment of this new fleet over the next 5 years, and to set the Department up for continuing this trajectory in the 5 years that follow.”

Sam LaGrone

Sam LaGrone

Sam LaGrone is the editor of USNI News. He has covered legislation, acquisition and operations for the Sea Services since 2009 and spent time underway with the U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps and the Canadian Navy.
Follow @samlagrone

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