Inside the Pentagon, a battle rages over the future of the fleet.


Six persons with knowledge of internal deliberations said that the issue is the desired number of amphibious battleships, which can launch airplanes and landing craft and carry Marines.

The people added that Kathleen Hicks, the deputy defense secretary, is leading an initiative to reduce the number of conventional, large-deck amphibs and increase investments in uncrewed ships and other lighter boats. Hicks’ idea, however, conflicts with that of the heads of the Navy and Marine Corps, who want to preserve a number of the ships they believe are essential to the movement of Marines and aircraft throughout the Indo-Pacific as the United States works to discourage an aggressive China.

“The Navy needs repair. According to John Ferrari, a senior scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who is not a resident, “shipbuilding is broken.” Every two years, the Navy is required to develop a 30-year plan that actually requires planning for more than 20 years.

Thirty years have passed since there was a genuine national agreement on Navy shipbuilding.

While being too enormous to approach the small island chains of the Pacific to land Marines and replenish them safely, some critics regard the large ships as easy prey for Chinese long-range missiles. The plan is for the Navy to create more unmanned systems and become smaller, faster, and more numerous.

But Biden appointee and retired naval officer Carlos Del Toro, the Navy Secretary, has advocated for maintaining the fleet’s amphib strength at around 31, a viewpoint shared by Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger, who this year won congressional support to thwart Pentagon plans to reduce the fleet to 25 ships over the next few years.

Berger also wants to deploy 35 new light amphibious warships to enable his Marines to travel through island chains more rapidly while presenting less of a target. Still, Marine and Navy chiefs are in disagreement over this issue. The leadership of the Navy has never ultimately endorsed that idea.

It is not unusual for leaders at the Pentagon and the Navy to hold opposing viewpoints. The size and composition of the fleet as a whole have long been a politically sensitive topic because of the enormous expenses associated with designing and building new ships. And conflicts between admirals and civilians at the Pentagon and Capitol Hill frequently result from the continually evolving nature of the global security environment.

What is novel, though, is the general lack of cohesion when figures are provided to Congress.

Mississippi Republican Sen. Roger Wicker, a Senate Armed Services Committee member, said in a statement that the longer they delay reaching a consensus, the greater the risk would be for our sailors and our country. Huntington Ingalls Industries division Ingalls Shipbuilding is located in his native state.

Hicks’ spokesman did not respond to a request for comment. According to Capt, it would be irresponsible to guess or comment on regular conversations held between the Deputy Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of the Navy. Jereal Dorsey, a Del Toro spokesperson, spoke to POLITICO.

An inquiry for comment from the Marine Corps received no response.

Study diligently

Since it stated that it needed 355 ships in 2016, the Navy’s goals for developing its future fleet have continuously changed. There has never been a feasible plan to get there, and succeeding governments have failed to approve a realistic plan to build more ships or allocate the necessary funding for a size fleet.

As Trump did during his presidential campaign, national security advisor Robert O’Brien and defense secretary Mark Esper latched on to the 355 figure during the Trump administration. However, they later managed a series of budgets that reduced funding for shipbuilding by billions of dollars. Esper rejected the Navy’s annual shipbuilding plan at one point in early 2020, taking control of the process and delaying its release for nearly a year. Finally, it was released in December 2020, a month before Joe Biden assumed the presidency, guaranteeing the new administration would immediately scrap them.

Since the plan called for a fleet of over 500 ships by 2045—a significant increase from the 298 ships already in service—it was also probably impossible to carry out. To get there, it suggested producing 82 new vessels by 2026, which would be twice the Navy’s initial plan to build 44 new ships by 2025 and possibly beyond the capacity of the U.S. shipbuilding sector.

Even though that plan didn’t make it through the change in administrations, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday has supported it well into the new administration, declaring as recently as February that it is still “the one that I’ve based my best advice on.” In addition, he was also proposing a new budget and a new shipbuilding plan that didn’t include anything from Esper’s wishlist.

Congress and the military sector have grown weary of the Navy’s fluctuating numbers during the entire process. It is impossible to maintain a steady supply line and keep ships leaving shipyards if a new shipbuilding plan is presented yearly. The continually shifting aim confuses both politicians and contractors.

The Navy announced its most recent 30-year shipbuilding plan in April of this year. It included three options: 316 ships, 327 ships, and 367 ships, each with a different budget and assumptions about the types of ships to be purchased. Following that, the Navy informed Congress in a classified study that its plans called for 373 ships, according to USNI News. However, a Navy officer told POLITICO that the new assessment had no link to the realities of budgets or the industrial base because it primarily addressed operational needs and overlooked shipyard capacity. This year, the Navy intends to submit the Hill an update of that report.

Through it all, Gilday has persisted in saying that the Navy requires a fleet of more than 500 ships in light of the Chinese threat.

According to one person with knowledge of the internal conversations, “the mismatch on where the Biden Pentagon team and the Navy-Marine Corps [stand], that’s the source of that friction.” This person, like others, requested anonymity to speak freely about the dispute. According to her argument, the direction [Hicks] believes the department should take does not necessarily include a Navy with more personnel.

There is conflict within the Navy as well as with the leadership of the Pentagon. The Navy shipbuilding budget twice removed the Marine Corps’ proposal for the light amphibious warship. The new ship is set to be funded in fiscal 2025, after Berger is expected to retire, according to the fiscal 2023 budget request.

The decision also casts doubt on Berger’s proposal to allow squadrons of 75 Marines to transport a variety of weaponry, such as drones, anti-ship missiles, and ammunition for ally forces while at sea.

However, that ship is the centerpiece of the Marine Corps’ modernization priorities. Given that the new ship is the size of previous commercial vessels, the Marine Corps plans to use it to transport Marines from beach to beach while remaining undetected.

The proposal also affects the industrial base that supports shipbuilding. These vessels are smaller than conventional amphibs, making it possible for more prospective builders to submit bids for the contract, including firms ill-equipped to construct massive military ships.

Personnel moves

The fact that the Biden administration has not yet proposed a candidate for the senior Navy acquisition position, now held temporarily by Tommy Ross, complicates matters. According to two former DoD officials, Ross, Del Toro’s former chief of staff, was recently removed from his front office because the two did not agree on the direction of Navy shipbuilding.

Ross was transferred to the acquisition position, where he lacked the authority to approve significant agreements, according to the two people.

According to the sources, Ross is more in line with Hicks’ plans for the fleet.

One former Pentagon official acquainted with the negotiations claimed, “There is a conflict between Carlos and Tommy Ross and, consequently, between Del Toro and Kath Hicks.” Del Toro feels confined by Kath Hicks and wants to move in a new way.

However, two internal documents detailing the changes state that Ross does not have purchase authority in his short-term position and is merely named as the portfolio manager for the Navy’s $140 billion.

In a memo released in May revealing Ross’s new position, Del Toro stated, “I reserve the right to execute any, and all the authorities temporarily delegated to you.”

Instead, Ross’ deputy Jay Stefany, a 37-year Navy veteran who joined the senior executive staff in 2012, has that authority. He is authorized to use what is known as “other transaction authority” to approve contracts between $100 million and $500 million that do not go through the standard acquisition procedure and to award contracts over $100 million to a single vendor.

According to one of the persons, the divergent opinions within the Pentagon regarding the future of Navy shipbuilding are not a negative thing, but leadership needs to reach an understanding. The person continued, “Whatever they decide will set the tone for the industrial base.”

But the source added that the Navy lacks a Senate-confirmed acquisition executive to work with industry to carry out the strategy is troubling once a course of action has been decided.

Congress will ultimately decide how many ships the Navy can afford and how much of a budget it will have. The Navy is scarcely in the good graces of the Hill, given the significant cost overruns and schedule slippages on new ship construction over the past 20 years, even as they want to inject tens of billions into President Joe Biden’s most recent defense budget.

According to a congressional staffer, “Congress remains very suspicious of the Navy’s capacity to execute new shipbuilding initiatives and carry them through.” Legislators are undoubtedly highly doubtful that the Navy can complete it on time and within their allocated budget, and some members of Congress question the Navy’s ability to complete it.

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