Navy Secretary Nominee Backs 355-Ship Plan, but Is Biden's Budget Enough?

The USS Bulkeley and USS Mason participate in a strait transit exercise.
The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers USS Bulkeley, right, and USS Mason participate in a strait transit exercise. (U.S. Navy/Seaman Jared M. King)

The nominee to be the next secretary of the Navy pledged Tuesday to support the push to grow the service to 355 ships over the next three decades.

But during Carlos Del Toro's nomination hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, several Republican lawmakers questioned whether President Joe Biden's proposed military budget would be enough to set the Navy on that path.

Del Toro told lawmakers that he fully supports the fiscal 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, which requires the Navy to reach that 355-ship goal. The service currently has about 297 battle force ships, including logistics and supply vessels.

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The growth in sea forces will be necessary as the military shifts its attention from the land-based conflicts in the Middle East of the last two decades to the Pacific region, he explained. Deterring China in particular will require a "more dominant maritime strategy" and more resources for the Navy and Marine Corps, Del Toro added.

If confirmed, Del Toro said he would make the case for more Navy resources to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin as the fiscal 2023 budget proposal is prepared.

Although some Republicans questioned the Biden administration's budgeting priorities, the questioning of Del Toro was collegial, and no issues emerged that appeared likely to jeopardize his confirmation to run the Navy.

In his opening statement, Del Toro highlighted China as a top challenge for the United States. China's "determined incursion" into the South China Sea represents a persistent naval threat, he said.

"China's rising military expenditures, fueled by a growing economy coupled with their global adventurism, means that we can no longer take U.S. naval superiority for granted," Del Toro said. "Access to contested waters requires more robust capabilities and capacity."

Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., concurred with Del Toro's assessment of the threat posed by China, but disagreed that Biden's proposed budget adequately addresses that.

He cited Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday's testimony to the House Armed Services Committee last month that the proposed top-line budget figure for the Navy would set the service on a path to only 300 ships.

Wicker said lawmakers from both parties are willing to help the service find the resources it needs to counter and deter China.

The Navy would receive $211.7 billion under the proposed 2022 budget, an increase of $207 billion from the current year. It calls for transforming the fleet with new ships, and would speed up the retirement of several older ships to free up resources.

Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., questioned the proposed budget's emphasis on research and development as opposed to buying new ships.

Del Toro said that, while he wasn't present while this budget was being prepared, it's important for the Navy to invest in research and development to prepare for future conflicts.

"We can't be fighting the wars of yesterday, we have to fight the new wars of tomorrow," he said. "That includes cybersecurity and space and many other challenges that are presented."

He later told Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., that the Navy needs to invest in missile technology, hypersonics, cybersecurity and other advancements in computing power.

Former Defense Secretary Mark Esper last September, in the waning months of his tenure running the Pentagon, laid out an ambitious plan for reaching at least 355 ships, including proposals to overhaul the shipyards necessary to produce and maintain ships. Esper's plan also called for focusing on the Indo-Pacific with a more dispersed fleet, and a new class of frigates to better withstand the threat from China's long-range "carrier killer" missiles.

However, Esper -- whose relationship with former President Donald Trump was already rocky -- was not in a position to follow through on that plan given his limited time left in office, and such a surge in military spending did not appear to have bipartisan support.

-- Stephen Losey can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @StephenLosey.

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