June 30, 2021

Gradually and then Suddenly: Explaining the Navy's Strategic Bankruptcy

By Chris Dougherty

The U.S. Navy is on the verge of strategic bankruptcy. Its fleet isn’t large enough to meet global day-to-day demands for naval forces. Due to repeated deployments and maintenance backlogs, the fleet also isn’t ready enough to meet these demands safely, nor can it quickly surge in an emergency. Finally, the fleet isn’t capable enough to meet the challenges posed by China’s increasingly modern and aggressive People’s Liberation Army Navy. How did this happen to a force that, as recently as two decades ago, dominated the world’s oceans to a degree perhaps unequalled in human history? The answer is gradually and then suddenly.

Myriad authors have responded to the Biden administration’s Fiscal Year 2022 defense budget request with a mix of confusion and consternation. Critics have directed their ire, in particular, at the budget’s treatment of the Navy, given the administration’s purported focus on China as a strategic competitor. However, the issues noted by critics aren’t limited to this budget, but reflect a persistent trend since at least the FY2019 request, which was the first defense budget request to prioritize China as a strategic competitor. Despite the need for “urgent change at significant scale” to meet the Chinese military challenge, the last four budget requests have offered only measured change at moderate scale.

Why is that?

The real impediments to urgent change are a lack of consensus on the risks posed by China, a lack of a shared vision for the future of the fleet, and limited options for implementing a new vision.

The stock response is usually a mix of bureaucratic inertia, service parochialism, and congressional obstruction. Inertia and parochialism are powerful forces, but hardly insurmountable ones, especially when facing a clear and pressing challenge. While Congress certainly determines the final shape of the authorized and appropriated budget, it has less influence on the executive branch’s initial budget request. Moreover, the bureaucracy, the services, and key components of Congress all generally agree on the core precepts of the 2018 National Defense Strategy. Specifically, they recognize that China is the most pressing military challenge facing the United States; the U.S. military response should focus on deterring Chinese aggression against U.S. allies, partners, and vital interests in the Indo-Pacific region; deterring China rests on a credible ability to defeat its aggression or deny China its objectives; and that this form of deterrence will require new methods of fighting wars backed by modernized air and naval forces.

The real impediments to urgent change are a lack of consensus on the risks posed by China, a lack of a shared vision for the future of the fleet, and limited options for implementing a new vision. Even if the Pentagon and Congress could reach consensus on these questions, the U.S. military lacks mature defense programs and the industrial capacity to build them at scale. These gaps aren’t unique to the Navy, but it serves as a useful example for the rest of the Defense Department because its gaps are so glaring in the context of the current strategic environment.

Read the full article from War on the Rocks.

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