Tensions rise in House over Navy shipbuilding

Biden's budget would build 9 ships and retire 24, for a net loss of 15

The Navy wants to take out of service Littoral Combat Ships that it believes would be unhelpful in a war with China. (U.S. Navy courtesy of Lockheed-Martin via Getty Images)
The Navy wants to take out of service Littoral Combat Ships that it believes would be unhelpful in a war with China. (U.S. Navy courtesy of Lockheed-Martin via Getty Images)
Posted May 11, 2022 at 3:49pm

Sharp divisions over the adequacy of President Joe Biden’s fiscal 2023 request for the Navy’s shipbuilding budget emerged at two House hearings Wednesday.

The differences, which fell largely along party lines, were manifest at a House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense budget hearing with the Pentagon top brass and a House Armed Services Committee hearing with the leaders of the Navy and Marine Corps.

At the Defense Appropriations hearing, the top Republican appropriator, Kay Granger of Texas, and the ranking Republican member of the Defense panel, Ken Calvert of California, complained the Navy would decommission significantly more ships in fiscal 2023 than it plans to procure, while China’s fleet is already larger — and growing more rapidly — than America’s.

But Betty McCollum, D-Minn., the Appropriations subcommittee’s chairwoman, sought to rebut these arguments by noting that nearly half of China’s larger Navy is made up of relatively small, support ships. She also noted that America’s allies in Asia have plenty of warships to bring to any fight. 

A similar debate took place Wednesday at the House Armed Services Committee. Virginia Democrat Elaine Luria joined several of her GOP colleagues in taking issue with the declining U.S. fleet size. 

The $27.8 billion fiscal 2023 Navy budget would fund nine new warships, the administration has said. But 24 ships are being retired, for a net loss of 15. 

The nine ships in the Freedom class of Littoral Combat Ships are a high-profile example of the decommissionings. 

But Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday said at the committee hearing that the Navy is using the $3.6 billion saved from retirements over the next five years on new ships and more modern weapons — which he called “systems that matter."

The decision on which ships to retire was driven largely by whether the Navy could “count on them to actually move the needle in a high end fight with an adversary like China," Gilday said.

From Ukraine to China

The House Appropriations subcommittee hearing ran the gamut of subjects, from troops’ housing costs to cyberwarfare. 

The conflict in Ukraine was a hot topic. Asked if the war could escalate into a conflict between Russia and NATO, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III said Russian President Vladimir Putin “doesn’t want to take on the NATO alliance.” 

Army Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Russia has fired hypersonic missiles in Ukraine, but the weapons have not created “significant or game-changing effects.”

McCollum, meanwhile, said at the end of the hearing that she supports another round of base closings to reduce excess infrastructure, which she said is 20 percent by one estimate.  

But the shipbuilding issue was front and center for members of both parties at both House hearings Wednesday. 

At the Appropriations hearing, Calvert predicted “glaring capability gaps” as a result of a shrinking fleet, noting also that hundreds of military aircraft would be retired under Biden’s fiscal 2023 plan. Calvert said China is building 22 ships this year to America's nine.

China has 355 ships in total and is projected to have 460 by 2030, according to a Pentagon report last fall.

The U.S. Navy, by comparison, would drop from 298 ships today to 280 by 2027 under the Biden plan. 

Granger asked the department’s leaders why they would “mothball” the LCS ships under these circumstances, saying she has “serious concerns about the way that was determined.”

Milley replied that the issue "comes down to balance in terms of what's affordable and what the Navy can afford and what the Department of Defense can afford.”

Austin said the overall budget “maintains our edge but does not take that edge for granted.”

Numbers game

McCollum, meanwhile, said she is interested in exploring possible new uses for at least some of the Littoral Combat Ships that are facing early retirement.

But she pushed back at length against the GOP argument that America’s Navy is a shadow of China’s. And she made a rarely heard point: that trying to catch up in quantity is a vain effort.

“There’s a simple fact here: The United States does not have the shipbuilding industrial base to manufacture, let alone maintain, a Navy that can completely — numerically — compete with China,” McCollum said. “But quantity alone is not the point. It’s quality and capability that matter, as you gentlemen pointed out,” she said to Austin and Milley, who were joined by Defense Department Comptroller Mike McCord. 

She then noted that China’s fleet — which she put at 500 ships — is comprised of 230 smaller support vessels. She also noted that three of America’s allies in the region — Japan, South Korea and Australia — have fleets totaling more than 350 ships combined, though she acknowledged some of those are smaller too.

“The debate I believe needs to be very substantiated, and not just picking a number that we think might be for the right number of ships for the U.S. to have,” she added.

She also alluded to the need to get ships in and out of maintenance faster, so that the actual number of deployed ships can grow. 

‘Systems that matter’

Meanwhile, at the House Armed Services Committee, several Republicans joined Luria in voicing concern about the U.S. fleet size: Mike D. Rogers of Alabama, the panel’s ranking member, plus Rob Wittman of Virginia, Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin and Michael Waltz of Florida.

But Gilday, the Navy’s top admiral, replied that the radar on older cruisers being retired can’t see the threat, leaving them vulnerable. Similarly, the anti-submarine warfare system on the nine Littoral Combat Ships the Navy wants to decommission “did not work out technically,” he said.

“After about a year and a half [of] study, I refuse to put an additional dollar against a system that would not be able to track a high-end submarine in today’s environment,” Gilday said.

The cost of maintaining and operating less capable ships, he said, would result in reductions in sailors, ammunition, spare parts, maintenance, flying hours and days at sea.

The Navy would use the savings to offset the cost of buying three submarines a year until 2037 — two Virginia-class attack subs and one Columbia-class ballistic sub. This would produce dividends in the sub-building workforce, and defense manufacturers would be able to invest in the infrastructure that would make their shipyards more efficient, he said.

“We are trying to maximize the domestic production lines for all high-end missiles,” he said, “so that the ships that we do send to sea actually have systems that matter.”