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Lawmakers push Navy to reconsider plans in light of Ukraine

Top of mind is whether the Navy can deter a Chinese invasion of Taiwan

An F/A-18E Super Hornet fighter aircraft descends to land on the flight deck of the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier during a training exercise in the Pacific in 2020.
An F/A-18E Super Hornet fighter aircraft descends to land on the flight deck of the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier during a training exercise in the Pacific in 2020. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Citing the failure to deter Russian President Vladimir Putin from invading Ukraine, lawmakers pushed the Navy on Thursday to stop favoring long-term priorities over near-term needs.

At a joint hearing of the House Armed Services Seapower and Readiness subcommittees examining naval strategy, Republicans argued the Navy needs to focus on assembling the most potent fleet it can in the near term to deter China from invading Taiwan.

Virginia Rep. Rob Wittman, the top Republican on the Seapower Subcommittee, wondered how the Navy reconciled its planning for the future with current circumstances.

The Navy’s Battleforce 2045 plan may position the service well for future decades, but Wittman noted that some people, including former Indo-Pacific Command chief Adm. Philip Davidson, have suggested that China could move on Taiwan within the next decade.

This concern undercuts the Navy’s divest-to-invest approach to budgeting, in which current assets are retired in order to pay for investments that could produce future strategic advantages over potential adversaries.

“If our focus is 2025, shouldn’t our entire force structure be focused on the near term?” Wittman asked.

“Navy brings a strong view that the decade of concern is [the 2020s],” replied Adm. William Lescher, the Navy’s vice chief of operations, while acknowledging that position is not universal within the service’s leadership. “We consistently believe and have thought that that’s the decade of peak risk.”

The conflicting priorities of funding current weapons to fight today’s adversaries versus investing in future technologies that will provide strategic advantages over future adversaries is “the fundamental dilemma of every budget submission,” he said.

In that light, Lescher said, the Navy’s ranked spending priorities remain first: funding and keeping the Columbia-class submarine on schedule; second: readiness today; third: modernization, i.e., updating and replacing aging ships and platforms with more lethal and survivable versions; and fourth: capacity.

Deterrence debate

Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., said he was awaiting the release of the Biden administration’s National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy, two military planning documents that outline defense priorities and policy that are routinely updated by every administration.

“I assume integrated deterrence will be the cornerstone of it,” he said, referring to the administration’s use of all the levers available to the government — including military assets, diplomacy, economic sanctions, and cooperation with allies — to influence the behavior of potential adversaries.

“When it comes to Ukraine, what did we deter?” asked Gallagher. “We failed to deter Putin from invading.”

Gallagher said he was worried that integrated deterrence was being used as a “smokescreen” to provide justification for cutting investments in hard power.

“If it is used to suggest that we can rely on nonmilitary tools, specifically sanctions or hashtag diplomacy, in order to deter, uncoupled from a credible military threat, then we will have further deterrence failures,” he said. “You have to put hard power in the path of people like Putin or [Chinese President] Xi Jinping, in order to have a hope of deterrence.”

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the first real-world test of integrated deterrence, and it failed, he said, adding that U.S. policymakers need to learn from that.

“The lesson is how we need to arm Taiwan yesterday. After things start going boom, it’s going to be hard to surge support,” he said. “We are engaged in the process of trying to deter the [Chinese military] by denial, and the threat of sanctions or a sternly worded mean tweet from the State Department press secretary is not going to deter Xi Jinping.”

Seapower Subcommittee Chairman Joe Courtney, D-Conn., pushed back against Gallagher’s conclusions, saying that there are instances of integrated deterrence working well, citing anti-submarine warfare as an example.

Lescher said that integrated deterrence had succeeded in keeping Russia from attacking any NATO allies, which the U.S. is obligated by treaty to defend.

“It’s almost a straw man to say integrated deterrence were to be somehow divorced from a comprehensive integrated approach that relies on military power,” he said. “The context here is the defense of U.S. NATO allies.”

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