In the face of China’s 17-year-old program to surpass the US Navy, U.S. naval leadership must independently advocate for a greater slice of the Defense Department budget. Such advocacy would break with the expected joint budgetary front before congress and draw comparisons to the infamous 1949 Revolt of the Admirals. However, weak naval advocacy will ensure an unchanged budget allowing China to eclipse the Navy’s, and subsequently joint force’s, deterrence and warfighting capacity. Inter-service decorum is not worth the risk of inaction – and speaking unpleasant truths is not the simplistic “parochial shouting” some may dismiss.
Political observers and military professionals recognized whichever administration won in 2020 would ultimately flatten the defense budget. So, any major increase in the size of the Navy must come from other services – ideally the Army, since the U.S. has concluded its mission in Afghanistan. Advocating for a reallocation of DoD funds, however, is not an attack on the Army but a recognition of the new strategic reality and the Navy’s critical position ensuring the success and survival of its joint force partners.
It was Navy parochial fears over the Air Force’s rise that drove the 1949 Revolt. The original revolt is a blemish on the Navy’s character, when leadership traded credibility and character to fight a fellow service. Unlike the 1949 internal revolt, a full-throated call for a larger, more capable Navy is directed squarely at the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) relative rise. Per Representative Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, “advocating for a larger Navy is not service parochialism.”
With bicameral, bipartisan direction for robust Naval advocacy from sealift to shipbuilding –providing independent navy-centric perspectives is constitutional obedience. Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) Chair, Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island, provided an opportunity for supporting answers when he bluntly labeled a 355 ship navy as an “arbitrary goal” and has now demanded them through the new NDAA. Representative Elaine Luria of Virginia notes the Navy’s joint-hedged budget is, “not a serious budget for great power competition.” Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas’ Surface Fleet Fighting Culture Report further demonstrates Congress concern and demands for honest assessment and bold, practical recommendations. Congress has gone as far as starting its own shipbuilding program. Navy reticence verges on insubordination. The Navy owes good faith compliance to the chain of command’s budget, but also owes Congress the requested independent assessment and vision.
Fortunately, Congress provided answers with their questions. First, hetorically and strategically, the Navy must embrace Representative Luria’s Battleforce 2025 rather than Battle Force 2045. Fifteen years ago, the Navy falsely predicted an operational Zumwalt rail gun, Littoral Combat Ship rapid modularity, a Remote Minehunting Vehicle (RMV), and rocket-propelled 5” rounds – but not the scale of PLAN development. The Navy can no longer afford to rely on over a decade of technological mirages.
Supporting a Naval Battleforce 2025 vision requires separate analysis and budgetary proposals from DoD scrubbed products. SASC has already provided the grounds for such separate analysis and presentation in the spirit of 2021 NDAA language requiring direct reports to Congress. The DoD process is captured by the inter-service balancing act. Providing objective maritime-focused analysis demands testimony, requirement lists, and realistic, sub-optimal wargames without imaginary technology. Developing unfunded lists in the necessary tens of billions of dollars, rather than a constrained 5.5, is an appropriate channel for communicating these needs. The new Navy Fleet Study being conducted parallel to the Defense Department’s is an indication the Navy is on the right path, but time will tell if the Navy can be accurately communicate its position whiling standing by its congressionally-desired independence until the process is complete and presented.
Finally, the acquisition needs must be clear and bypass the arthritic traditional processes. The Coast Guard’s Island and Legend classes production lines provide the Navy platforms to surge alongside the Constellation. The Navy’s Constellation and Marine Corps Warfighting Lab’s success with Littoral Explosive Ordnance Neutralization teams demonstrates the Navy’s existing tools for quick turnaround design development and fielding.
Unfortunately, America lacks the domestic capacity to meet all Navy needs. President Biden’s Buy American correction is supported by Federal agencies unironically complaining about a ban on purchasing Chinese drones, but the Navy must advocate for capitalizing on partner production lines. The AUKUS nuclear deal demonstrates a way forward for inter-partner technology licensing and sharing. The Kongsberg Naval Strike Missile already filled a gap in naval surface-to-surface capability. Where America’s minehunting drone boat development failed, a Franco-British program already fields functional technology – and offers a potential source of procurement to assuage French rage. Israel’s anti-radiation suicide HAROP drone provides low-cost suppression of enemy air defenses. Program offices failing to develop even bad versions of allied technology over 15 years is not acceptable. Navy procurement can support expansion as well as the President’s goal of strengthening partnerships.
Naval leadership may hesitate, seeing acknowledgement of the dire situation as politically lethal to their credibility. But Naval decline was duty, not dereliction. For 20 years, the Navy bracketed budgetary expectations to supporting the primary irregular fights in CENTCOM. That’s where America ordered the military, where Americans fought and died, and where the Navy & Marine Corps team supported. The Navy made many grave procurement mistakes in an attempt to cover the increasing operational gaps during this period, but no service escaped expensive, failed hedges against a future outside CENTCOM. But now, no service will escape the lethal results of an unprepared Navy.
America’s shifted focus to China demands the Naval resurgence after a 20-year maritime decline against Beijing’s meteoric maritime expansion. As 20 years of resources funneled to the primary directed fight, the Navy must advocate the same happen now. These demands are not about entitlement or “turn”, but guaranteeing the Navy’s success as keystone to any Pacific strategy – and every service’s reliance on the naval effectiveness. If the Navy channels a fraction of Commandant Berger’s energy on rapid reorientation for the next fight, money will be well spent.
If the Navy’s relative trajectory does not change, America finds itself in Spain’s position before the Spanish-American war – an established global power whose Navy stagnated under financial neglect and bureaucratic inefficiency crossing swords with a heavily armed & energetic rising power.
Before the final collapse of Spain’s global navy during the Battles of Manila Bay and Santiago, Spain recalled Admiral Pasqual Cervera, who had resigned as Minister of the Navy to protest the decreasing budget, to service. Admiral Cervera’s had struggled and failed to prevent the hollowing out of Spain’s navy. As he weighed anchor for Cuba on orders to patrol the Caribbean, Admiral Cervera wrote the Ministerio de Marine:
“Nothing can be expected of this expedition except for the total destruction of our flotilla. With a clear conscience, I go to the sacrifice, but I cannot understand the navy’s decision.”
Today, our Navy’s decision to shrink and accept only minor budgetary adjustment cannot be understood against existential threats demanding the opposite. American Sailors and Marines join with clear conscience, but pride and diligence cannot win alone. The Joint Force cannot win, let alone survive, without the Navy. The Navy needs platforms, people, and time to exercise and develop. Sims, Mahan, Rickover, Zumwalt, Hopper, Bushnell – naval history is replete with examples of leadership and public advocacy changing the course of our history. Leadership must fight today to keep ADM Cervera’s pen from their successor’s hand tomorrow. In what peace remains, Navy leadership’s duty is to marshal resources for war – hopefully, sufficient to prevent it.
Matthew Hipple is an active duty Surface Warfare Officer and former President of the Center for International Maritime Security. His opinions do not represent official policies or positions of the U.S. Navy, Department of Defense, or U.S. Government.