SECDEF Esper’s ‘Battle Force 2045’ Plan Still Awaiting White House Approval

October 21, 2020 6:13 PM
Secretary of Defense Mark Esper conducts Virtual Engagement with Industry Partners at the Pentagon on Oct. 21, 2020. DoD Photo

Two weeks after Defense Secretary Mark Esper unveiled the outline for his Battle Force 2045 initiative to grow the Navy to more than 500 ships, the Trump administration has yet to give final approval.

A week before Esper’s Oct. 6 speech outlining the bullet points of the fleet proposal that would set the course of Navy shipbuilding for the next two decades, the White House’s Office of Management and Budget had yet to sign off on the plan that was drafted in conjunction with the Navy and the Pentagon’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) office, according to a source familiar with the deliberation process on the plan.

As of Wednesday morning, Esper’s blueprint to reshape the Navy had yet to receive authorization from OMB, a defense official familiar with the deliberations told USNI News.

While Esper provided a broad outline earlier this month calling for both manned and unmanned platforms in a larger fleet, the Pentagon has yet to produce a detailed plan showing how the service will achieve this new goal. Esper’s proposal, which he presented on Oct. 6 at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, called on the Navy to grow its attack submarine fleet and build three Virginia-class fast attack boats each year. He also made the case for the use of light carriers to augment the Navy’s nuclear-powered aircraft carriers.

Despite Esper giving a handful of speeches this month talking about Battle Force 2045, the Defense Department has still not yet released the Future Naval Force Study that informed the plan or this year’s 30-year shipbuilding plan — due to Congress every February along with the annual budget request — which was supposed to be updated to reflect the new fleet design.

OMB acknowledged a request for comment from USNI News on the office’s approval of the plan but did not provide a statement. Likewise, a spokesman for the Office of the Secretary of Defense acknowledged a USNI News request for comment but did not provide a statement.

A Democrat congressional aide told USNI News that lawmakers have not received the 30-year outlook or the FNFS.

“The plan still hasn’t been publicly released, and right now I don’t think we have a precise timeline for when to expect it,” the aide said. “All we have are the secretary’s comments, which were encouraging but obviously left a few people with questions.”

Meanwhile, Esper’s proposal has already met skepticism in Congress. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), who has historically emphasized the importance of capability over quantity, during a Wednesday call with reporters dismissed the focus on a fixed number of ships. He noted the Navy is still well below the 350-ship objective that President Donald Trump set for the service during his 2016 campaign.

Smith praised Esper for discussing the importance of capability when outlining the 2045 plan but called the focus on a number of ships “utterly nonsensical.”

“I’m not impressed by the throwing numbers out there to make people feel like they’re being tough and strong. Capability is what matters, not numbers. And that’s going to continue to be my focus. And it’s also worth noting that in deterring our adversaries, it’s not just the military that deters our adversaries, it’s alliances. It’s partnerships. It’s diplomacy. It’s development,” Smith said.
“An excessive reliance on military deterrence is a mistake in meeting our national security needs, in my view, and picking an artificial number for how many ships you need is an example of that mistake.”

The christening ceremony of submarine Montana took place at Newport News Shipbuilding division’s Modular Outfitting Facility in front of a virtual audience on Sept. 12, 2020. Newport News Shipbuilding photo.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) applauded Esper for taking a new look at the fleet and concentrating on threats from China and Russia, but he also called for more clarity on the plan.

“I look forward to better understanding the details of the plans that underlie the secretary’s speech, including the resources required, basing considerations, and how the department plans to prudently develop and field lead ships in new vessel classes – manned or unmanned,” Inhofe said in an Oct. 13 statement.

“In fielding new systems, we need to avoid repeating past mistakes that have set us back in time, money and capability. For example, the ongoing problems with the USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) trace back to decisions made more than two decades ago about how the department would manage this lead ship’s cost, schedule and development,” he continued. “The development of unmanned ships also presents some unique challenges, not just in terms of production and acquisition, but also in terms of the tactics, techniques, and procedures associated with operational implementation.”

News of the pending approval of the Battle Force 2045 plan comes as White House National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien toured a Navy public shipyard and destroyer-builder General Dynamics Bath Iron Works in Maine.

In a Wednesday speech at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, O’Brien noted the Navy is building a 355-ship fleet, an objective laid out in the service’s 2016 force structure assessment.

“As the president has made clear, we are driving toward a 355-ship Navy,” O’Brien said in prepared remarks.

Mallory Shelbourne

Mallory Shelbourne

Mallory Shelbourne is a reporter for USNI News. She previously covered the Navy for Inside Defense and reported on politics for The Hill.
Follow @MalShelbourne

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