As the Biden administration continues filling key positions, its plans for the Navy should come into better focus, according to the service’s top civilian.
Speaking at the National Defense Industrial Association’s virtual Expeditionary Warfare conference on Tuesday, Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Harker said he expects to have a clearer understanding of the Biden administration’s shipbuilding plans once administration officials like the deputy defense secretary, the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, and the OMB deputy director are confirmed to their posts.
“As those people start filling in, we anticipate getting more clarity on the priorities of the administration as we go forward,” Harker said. “The timeline for us to present the budget is to hopefully get something over to Congress in May, with a lot of work being done internal to the department as we look at that.”
The Senate confirmed Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin last month to lead the Pentagon and held a confirmation hearing on Tuesday for Austin’s designated deputy, Kathleen Hicks. Neera Tanden, President Joe Biden’s nominee to serve as the OMB director, is slated to appear next week in front of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee as part of the nomination process. Biden chose Shalanda Young, the Democrat staff director for the House Appropriations Committee, to serve as the OMB deputy director.
Budget submissions are often delayed when there is a change in administration. While the Trump administration during its last few weeks in office unveiled a shipbuilding plan led by the White House that called for a significant funding boost for more ships, it remains unclear what the Biden administration will do with the proposal. The Trump White House plan, released as a Fiscal Year 2022 shipbuilding blueprint, projected the Navy spending $147 billion between FY 2022 and FY 2026 to purchase 82 new ships. The FY 2021 Future Years Defense Program published last February had only projected the Navy spending $102 billion to buy 44 ships across the five-year plan.
“The last administration had a very aggressive focus on shipbuilding. They diverted funds from some areas in order to fund that and source that. And they also identified internal efficiencies. There were a lot of savings that were identified that went into the development of that budget. I was involved with that along with many many other people,” Harker said.
“And one of the things that we did while building that was identify exactly what went in across various tranches so that the new administration had the ability to come in and make changes based on the administration priorities.”
“I don’t know what those priorities are. I do know that the secretary has said that the pacing threat is China, which means that it’s a maritime strategy, so we require a strong maritime force – a joint Navy/Marine Corps force that’s ready to provide credible deterrence to China,” he added.
Harker said he believes parts of the Trump plan will remain intact, but some likely will not.
“I don’t think everything that was in the shipbuilding plan will stay there, but I think there are some key elements of that that absolutely will,” he said.
“We’ve gone forward with reprogramming to open up to do the work in order to potentially open up another yard for frigates,” Harker added. “So I think there’s a strong interest in allowing us to continue to grow the naval force to get up to 355 plus ships.”
The 355-ship goal stems from the 2016 Force Structure Assessment unveiled at the end of the Obama administration. Since then, both the Navy and former Defense Secretary Mark Esper conducted evaluations to determine both the number and types of ships the service would need in a future conflict, one that the National Defense Strategy expects to be with Russia or China.
Harker called the 355 objective a “non-partisan” issue.
“I don’t see that changing with the current administration,” he said. “I believe that the investment is something that we will continue to make.”
The acting Navy secretary would not put a specific number on what the service’s budget should be, but said the more than $200 billion it typically gets is warranted.
“But I wouldn’t want to throw out a number and say that we need X because it’s going to vary based on where you’re willing to accept risk,” Harker said.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin emphasized during his confirmation hearing that he sees China as the “pacing threat” for the U.S. and said he would “update” the National Defense Strategy, published in 2018 by former Defense Secretary James Mattis.
“We’ll have to have capabilities that allow us to hold – to present a credible threat, a credible deterrent, excuse me, to China in the future. We’ll have to make some strides in the use of quantum computing, the use of AI, the advent of connected battlefields, the space-based platforms. Those kinds of things I think can give us the types of capabilities that we’ll need to be able to hold large pieces of Chinese military inventory at risk,” Austin told the Senate Armed Services Committee last month.
“And so I believe that we still have the qualitative edge and the competitive edge over China,” he added. “I think that gap has closed significantly and our goal will be to ensure that we expand that gap going forward.”
As the services have recalculated to adhere to the NDS, some officials have called for the Navy to get a bigger piece of the Defense Department budget due to the maritime nature of a possible conflict in the Indo-Pacific region and the service’s responsibility to build the sea-based leg of the nuclear triad.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley in December alluded to this suggestion when he said the Pentagon’s strategy would focus on air and naval power if it faced a decreased top-line budget.
“The fundamental defense of the United States and the ability to project power forward – which is one of the American ways of war – and the ability to set conditions for decision, that will always be for America, that’s going to be naval and air and space power,” Milley said at the time.