Trump Budget Sets Up Clash With $4 Billion Cut for Warships

(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. Navy is requesting about $4 billion less for new ships in President Donald Trump’s fiscal 2021 budget than it received in the current year, a move that’s likely to set off a battle with the service’s advocates in Congress from Mississippi to Maine.

In the budget proposal expected to be released on Monday, the Navy cuts back on the number of ships it wants to buy both this year and over the coming five years, according to the Pentagon Comptroller’s 134-page overview of the fiscal 2021-2025 plan obtained by Bloomberg News in advance of its release.

The data in the overview signals hurdles to Trump’s 2016 campaign target of building a 355-ship Navy, but the extent of the delay will be debated in upcoming congressional hearings. The service’s budget for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1 drops $2 billion from this year’s approved total to $207 billion, part of an overall Pentagon budget of $705.4 billion. That overall budget represents a slight decline from this year as well.

According to the budget overview, the Navy is calling for the acquisition of 44 ships through 2025 instead of the 55 projected last year. Part of that overall decline in ship buying starts in the coming year, when the Navy is pressing for just eight new vessels, down from 12 in the current year budget and 13 in 2019. Separately the service is planning to purchase 20 still unproven unmanned vessels through 2025: 10 surface and 10 underwater vessels.

Part of that overall decline in ship buying starts in the coming year, when the Navy is pressing for just eight new vessels, down from 12 in the current year budget and 13 in 2019.

In its section of the comptroller overview, the Navy signaled it has enough ships in the pipeline and doesn’t need any more added next year.

“The Department appreciates the strong support by Congress for naval shipbuilding in 2020,” according to the report. “We currently have 73 vessels under contract and 44 ships in construction and 10 more are projected” to be put under contract this year, it says.

The Navy has 293 deployable ships today. The proposed budget envisions 303 by 2025, part of a plan to eventually get the 355-ship fleet Trump said he thinks the service needs.

The text of the comptroller’s report “suggests the Navy would prefer to not get extra ships in 2021,” said Bryan Clark, a naval analyst for the non-partisan Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, via email. That’s likely because the larger, manpower-intensive ships built in recent decades are expensive to maintain.

Even if Congress provides extra money for additional ships, “the Navy will need to crew them and sustain them, which are the parts of the budget that are growing fastest,” said Clark, who co-authored a recent study of Navy force structure. “Also, if Congress adds ships, they will be the ones currently under construction –- large, manned combatants the Navy is realizing it needs fewer of in favor of small combatants and unmanned vessels.”

A key Democratic lawmaker called the budget proposal is “dead on arrival.”

“It’s impossible to square this plan with the Administration’s National Defense Strategy and its claim that it supports a 355-ship fleet,” Connecticut Representative Joe Courtney, the chairman of the Seapower and Projection Forces subcommittee, said in a statement. He went on to call the budget proposal “weak” and “pathetic.”

The broader Pentagon budget proposal would boost funding for nuclear weapons systems such as the Air Force’s new intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear-capable F-35 jets, as well as providing more money for emerging hypersonic weapons technology research and the Space Force. The budget shifts funding in other ways that signal Trump’s evolving priorities.

For the second consecutive year, the Pentagon is proposing a research and development request of more than $100 billion. The $106.5 billion would be a $2 billion increase over this year. Yet procurement spending would decline $6.8 billion from this year’s $143.7 billion level.

Among the notable increases for Navy munitions, the budget requests:

  • 53 new Lockheed Martin Corp. Long-Range Anti-Ship missiles, up from 17 this year
  • 203 Raytheon Co. Tomahawk cruise missiles, up from 90 this year.

The Navy budget requests $20 billion for new vessels -- down from $24 billion approved for this year -- and includes:

  • $4.6 billion for one Virginia-class submarine built jointly by General Dynamics Corp. and Huntington Ingalls Industries Inc. ; that’s scaled back from a planned two last year.
  • $3.5 billion for two Arleigh Burke DDG-51 destroyers built in Maine by General Dynamics; one was added late in the budget process.
  • $1.2 billion for a San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock built by Huntington Ingalls.
  • $1.1 billion for the first of a planned 20 new frigates -- down from one planned; the Navy by Sept. 30 will select a winner for the current competition to build the vessel.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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