Mackenzie Eaglen, a former force planning expert at the Department of Defense and Senate Armed Services Committee, predicts that if the U.S. does not invest more in shipbuilding, it could see allies hedging their bets and siding with China in as little as five years.
Eaglen says U.S. allies in the East could consider partnering with a regional power like China unless the U.S. commits to a strong naval presence in the Pacific and prevents a vacuum of power from forming. “I think we’re already seeing the region change. We’re not leading or shaping the decision-making calculus of others,” said the fellow at the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute in a phone interview.
Under its 2013 long-range shipbuilding plan, the U.S. Navy will spend an average of about $17 billion a year on new ship construction over the next 30 years. It aims to have 300 warships in service, 13 less than what it previously aimed for in recent shipbuilding plans, making its fleet size essentially half that of the Cold War-era fleet of 600 ships.
The ships brought into service during the Cold War will all retire during that 30-year timeframe.
But the U.S. Navy says it simply does not have more money to put toward shipbuilding. The Defense Department’s base budget for 2013 falls more than $5 billion short of this year’s enacted level. The cost cutting is in line with the Budget Control Act of 2011, which reduces defense spending by nearly half a trillion dollars over 10 years.
China, on the other hand, will nearly double its defense budget between now and 2015, increasing an average of 18.75 percent a year, according to a defense forecast report by global research group HIS Jane.
“If the United States is seen as less and less of a presence, China is likely to make its weight felt throughout the region,” former Defense Department official Seth Cropsey said in a phone interview. “And that has not only security implications, but it has simple trade, economic, commercial implications,” added the senior fellow at the conservative think tank Hudson Institute.
Both Cropsey and Eaglen say the goal of investing in shipbuilding is not necessarily to prepare for war, but to project the image that the U.S. has the technology, capability and might to deter China or Russia from starting one.
Naval officials say the problem is that the shipbuilding plan, even if it were fully executed, would not create a fleet large enough to accomplish all its duties, especially in areas of emerging threat like Asia Pacific. “It would take a navy of over 500 ships to meet the combatant commander requests,” Vice Admiral William R. Burke recently told members of the House Armed Services readiness subcommittee.
Another issue is the Navy bases its plan on what Eaglen calls “unrealistic” assumptions. The plan assumes cruisers can stay in service for 35 years, but Eaglen says the Navy is actually retiring them at an average age of just over 20 years. If the plan were to be based on the actual retirement age, it would fall short of the 300 ships it aims for.
Cropsey, who specialized in development of U.S. naval maritime strategy while at the Pentagon, calls the drift toward a smaller Navy troubling, saying the fleet’s power and capabilities are “not a substitution for presence that comes with a sufficient number of ships.”
For the time being, there are ways to work with a constrained budget. Cropsey suggests setting up fixed- price arrangements to establish the cost of a ship in advance, finding multiple sources to build a class of ships and flattening out the bureaucracy that slows down processes.
Eaglen adds the Navy can continue to build cheaper ships to keep the numbers up and make upgrades when possible.