Plans for a Bigger Navy Fleet Were Gaining Support. Now Leaders May Have to Start Over

An F/A-18C Hornet prepares to land on the USS Carl Vison.
An F/A-18C Hornet prepares to land on the flight deck of aircraft carrier USS Carl Vison (CVN 70) during an air power demonstration. (U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Alexander C. Kubitza)

The U.S. has underinvested in its naval forces for too long, the Navy's top officer said this week.

But the road to bigger Navy and Marine Corps budgets could be rough under a new administration that has signaled defense spending cuts are likely.

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday said on Thursday that the Navy Department made significant progress convincing former Defense Secretary Mark Esper and his staff that maritime investments were needed if the U.S. is going to compete against China and Russia.

President Donald Trump since fired Esper following the November election, replacing him with acting Defense Secretary Christopher C. Miller. And President-elect Joe Biden has not yet named his intended defense secretary pick, but the official nomination will likely come soon after the January inauguration.

Related: Navy Announces First 3 Groups of Sailors to Get COVID-19 Vaccine

That will force Navy and Marine Corps leaders to start over when it comes to explaining their budget needs, Gilday said.

"Certainly we'll have challenges again with a new administration in terms of explaining the rationale for making the investments in the naval force and to head down a direction that [Marine Commandant Gen. David Berger] and I want to go in," he added.

The Navy has also faced resistance from lawmakers hesitant to give the service more money after several problems with major purchases in recent years, including littoral combat ships, its three Zumwalt-class destroyers, and the Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carrier.

The Navy is sending its first four littoral combat ships into retirement after a host of engine problems. The service just accepted delivery this year of its next-generation stealth destroyer Zumwalt. It was commissioned three years ago, and broke down the following month. And the $13 billion next-generation Ford carrier has faced frequent delays and been prone to tech problems.

"We're fighting the ghosts of our past, whether it's LCS, the Zumwalt, the challenges we've had with Ford," Gilday said at the U.S. Naval Institute's Defense Forum Washington. "We need to explain how we're not going to repeat mistakes that we've had."

Gilday said in January that if the Navy and Marine Corps are to operate in greater numbers at sea aboard more ships, the department will need a bigger slice of the Defense Department budget. In the 1980s, the Navy got 38% of the Pentagon's budget, he said, and now it gets 34%.

"I think we certainly have a case to make," Gilday said at the 2020 Surface Navy Association symposium. "... One-third, one-third, one-third does not reflect the [national defense] strategy."

Esper, shortly before he was ousted, announced a plan to build a 500-ship Navy fleet, which focused heavily on submarines, unmanned vessels, and light carriers that support short-takeoff aircraft.

Gilday said he's less concerned about the total number of platforms needed than closing what he sees as capability gaps at sea. Topping his wish list, he said, are more submarines, unmanned vessels and logistics ships. He also wants to change up the amphibious fleet, and swap big surface vessels for smaller ships, he said.

Navy Department leaders believe they have done the necessary analysis to back up the push to invest in those areas, the CNO added. Now they'll have to convince a new administration and Congress it's worth the money.

"We believe we need overmatch in the maritime based on the adversaries that we're facing," Gilday said.

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.

Related: Navy Brings Back US Atlantic Fleet as Russian Threats Intensify

Story Continues