After a strange turn of events that saw her long-expected nomination get redirected for a time, on Aug. 14, Adm. Lisa Franchetti took the reins of the U.S. Navy. While not yet formally confirmed, America’s new Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) has not been hesitant in sending a message to the fleet, calling on her command to “assure our allies and partners that they have no more trusted friend” and “inspire confidence in our fellow Americans that their Navy has the watch.”
The Threat From China Is Real and Known
Adm. Franchetti’s message is an urgent one. It comes amid increasingly provocative Chinese naval drills around Taiwan, growing harassment of China’s neighbors in the South China Sea, and the recent sortie of a combined Russian-Chinese naval flotilla near Alaska. Her assertion, in the same message, that “the work of our Navy continues undisrupted and unabated,” is incomplete — because business as usual is increasingly perilous. Surveys, war games, and analysis of the U.S. Navy all point to the fleet’s weakness. There is a lot to do and precious little time for Franchetti to focus needed attention and investment onto the Navy.
To adjust to dangerous changes afoot around the globe, the U.S. Navy needs a rallying cry that focuses the administration and Congress to unity of action, and at the same earns the support of the American people. Franchetti should start by setting a target on the number of warships the Navy needs to defend America. Doing so will galvanize shipbuilding, recruitment, and munitions production, and it will signal strength to Beijing.
That last part is important, because China has been rattling the peace with increasingly forceful naval deployments. This is no sudden development catching our national leadership by surprise, but a 30-year, concerted post-Tiananmen Square effort to win in a confrontation with the United States. Time is long past due to take this threat seriously.
In addition to setting a target on warships, Franchetti should make it a priority to publicly state there is urgency to this challenge. There can be no more long-range plans that don’t deliver deterrence when it is most needed: this decade. It’s time to start executing.
Getting the Shipyards in Shape
For almost a decade, the Navy, Congress, and three different administrations have supported the goal of a fleet of 355 warships. Since 2016, however, the Navy’s fleet of warships has regressed in size due to a combination of political distraction, poor budget prioritization, and, in the last couple years, an almost willful disregard of the threat.
That’s not good enough. The Navy and the nation must demand a fleet of no fewer than 355 warships by 2030. Today’s fleet of 297 warships is on track to shrink further to 285 ships in 2027, when the danger from China’s expected 440 warships is at its greatest point. To turn the tide, America must build more ships and keep the ones it has in fighting condition. That necessarily means recapitalizing shipyards.
Sadly, the nation’s naval shipbuilding and maintenance capacities have been allowed to degrade since the end of the Cold War to an unacceptable state. Today over a third of the nuclear submarines America has must wait for maintenance before they return to sea. This is also unacceptable. Nuclear submarines are the most important part of today’s fleet for deterring an onslaught in Asia.
Fixing this requires more than modernizing the four shipyards America maintains today. The Shipyard Infrastructure Optimization Program is clearly inadequate. Instead, the Navy must push for building an additional public shipyard that can service these nuclear submarines, even as broader efforts move forward to grow the nation’s maritime industrial base.
Boosting the Nation’s Sailors
Failing to quickly recapitalize the maritime industrial base makes any new shipbuilding effort largely hollow. After decades of cost cutting, today we are living in an “and” world. Both capacity and readiness are required to deter an increasingly confident and belligerent Chinese navy.
Of course, warships do not exist to be repaired at harbor, but to fight wars. And that requires munitions, from modern anti-ship cruise missiles to torpedoes. Here too, because of the military support America has provided Ukraine, the true brittleness and inadequacy of the nation’s capacity to manufacture munitions is being exposed. That war is turning into a clarion call that seems to have finally triggered a serious movement to invest in and expand needed weapons production.
So far, however, the progress made is far from sufficient. The CNO must be vigilant to ensure that more work is done to achieve munitions production capacities, even if the fighting in Ukraine subsides. This is especially true given the different types of weapons needed and the volume at which they would be expended in a war with China.
Finally, action and real investment is needed in the sailors who keep this fleet at-sea and would fight on these ships. Too often, pleasant words are offered but precious little action reaches those on the deck plates. The abhorrent conditions in shipyards that many of the most junior sailors have had to endure must end. Extended deployments beyond six months cannot persist. To confront today’s dangers while taking care of the sailors in the Navy isn’t impossible, but it will take vigorous leadership, risk-taking, and fresh thinking.
To ensure that the Navy is properly crewed, for example, expanded efforts at recruitment and creative solutions to improve shipyard life must be made at once. Novel ideas, such as the chartering of disused cruise ships to quarter sailors where adequate housing or barracks are unavailable, must be considered seriously. Likewise, the new CNO must work to establish a reimagined and expanded Broadened Opportunity for Officer Selection and Training program, which will allow new recruits to improve technical competencies and permit promising enlisted members to pursue a path to an officer’s commission.
If the new CNO will not act, Congress should look into requiring these provisions.
The Navy’s primary goal in this decade is to deter China. Doing so will require a larger fleet. Getting that fleet will require recapitalizing shipyards. Arming that fleet will require new munitions factories. Manning that fleet will require taking better care of the nation’s current sailors and expanding recruitment for new ones. After cashing in a $1.2 trillion post-Cold War peace dividend, the bill is now due. It’s time to restore the Navy so it can continue to secure the peace. If confirmed, Adm. Franchetti’s tenure will occur as the threat from China peaks, and she will be judged by how quickly she gets the Navy underway on a course correction that can deter, but that can also persevere if needed in a prolonged conflict.
About the Author
Brent Sadler joined Heritage Foundation after a 26 year Navy career with numerous operational tours on nuclear powered submarines, personal staffs of senior Defense Department leaders, and as a military diplomat in Asia. As a senior research fellow, Brent’s focus is on maritime security and the technologies shaping our future maritime forces, especially the Navy.
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