Trump’s Bigger Fleet Is Dead in the Water

A 350-ship Navy costs more than Trump wants to spend

Trump’s Bigger Fleet Is Dead in the Water Trump’s Bigger Fleet Is Dead in the Water
U.S. president Donald Trump campaigned on a promise to expand the U.S. Navy to 350 front-line warships — a major boost over today’s 275-strong... Trump’s Bigger Fleet Is Dead in the Water

U.S. president Donald Trump campaigned on a promise to expand the U.S. Navy to 350 front-line warships — a major boost over today’s 275-strong combat fleet.

But the Trump administration’s first Navy budget proposal, for the 2018 fiscal year that begins in late 2017, adds no ships to the long-term plan that Trump’s predecessor Pres. Barack Obama wrote in order to grow the fleet to 308 ships by the mid-2020s.

The Navy’s ideal version of Trump’s 350-ship fleet actually numbers 355 major vessels, including 12 aircraft carriers, 104 large surface combatants, 52 small surface combatants, 38 amphibious ships and 66 attack submarines.

By comparison, Obama’s planned 308-ship fleet included 12 carriers, 88 large surface combatants, 52 small surface combatants, 34 amphibs and just 48 attack submarines.

But unless the U.S. Congress significantly rewrites Trump’s Navy budget — which is unlikely — any naval build-up will be delayed beyond 2018, if not much longer.

On May 23, 2017, the Trump administration proposed a $172-billion budget for the 2018 fiscal year for the Department of the Navy, which includes the Navy and Marine Corps. The budget proposal includes just eight new ships — a Ford-class aircraft carrier, two Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, two Virginia-class submarines, one Littoral Combat Ship and two logistics ships.

Obama’s own plan proposed to buy the same ships in the same quantities. In other words, for at least the first budget of Trump’s administration, the 350-ship Navy remains a dream. Obama’s 308-ship Navy remains the reality.

The reasons for Trump’s betrayal of his promised naval build-up are myriad. The administration, which Trump has stacked with anti-government libertarians, is determined to both deeply cut taxes — especially for the wealthy — while also balancing the federal budget within a decade.

Simultaneously achieving both of those goals requires the U.S. economy to grow at three percent per year. Even the most optimistic economist assumes the economy will grow no faster than two-percent annually. Trump’s 2018 budget is, in many ways, an austerity budget, where the austerity is a an artificial imposition resulting from tax cuts.

Huntington Ingalls shipyard in Mississippi. Huntington Ingalls photo

At the same time, the 2011 Budget Control Act caps all government spending. Congress typically approves short-term waivers to allow Pentagon budgets to briefly exceed legal limits. But permanently ending the Budget Control Act would require votes from Democratic lawmakers who oppose Trump’s cuts to non-military accounts.

In other words, Democrats in Congress probably won’t allow Trump to significantly boost Defense Department spending without also growing other departments’ budgets. That, in turn, would likely alienate Trump’s Republican Party.

Constrained by politics and his eagerness to cut taxes, Trump has proposed to boost overall Defense Department spending in 2018 by a mere $18 billion over Obama’s own plan for the same year. That represents a three-percent increase to $603 billion, not counting the annual war supplemental that pays for combat operations.

$18 billion spread out over the Departments of the Air Force, Army and Navy doesn’t amount to much on a per-service basis. Compared to the 2017 budget, Navy shipbuilding accounts actually shrink by a billion dollars under Trump’s 2018 proposal.

In recent decades, the Navy has spent an average of $15 billion annually on new ships. To grow the fleet to 355 ships over the next 15 to 30 years could cost an average of $27 billion per year, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Despite its high cost, Trump’s vow to build a bigger fleet actually enjoys bipartisan support among current and former naval officials. Working independently of Trump, Obama’s Navy secretary Ray Mabus in late 2016 proposed the ideal future fleet of 355 front-line ships that the budget office used to calculate the cost of Trump’s 350-ship fleet.

Mabus made it clear in his official Force Structure Assessment, or FSA, that the ideal fleet is theoretically feasible. “Navy leadership is confident that, if funded, this plan is executable.” But there’s one major obstacle — the Budget Control Act. “The 2016 FSA was not constrained by Budget Control Act funding levels,” Mabus noted.

The other obstacle is one that Mabus did not anticipate — Trump’s own determination to cut taxes and shrink overall federal spending despite mounting opposition from Congress. For now and perhaps for the long term, the 350-ship fleet is dead in the water.

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