The Navy hasn’t been able to build a shipbuilding plan that satisfies Congress or itself for much of the last decade, and 2021 could be the year it finally is forced to decide on a plan.

First, it will have to hack through the issues of how to make and pay for changes to the size, shape, and operational posture of its fleets, all with a close eye on China and Russia. 

It’s not clear what the Biden administration’s priorities will be or how much of the belated $147 billion shipbuilding plan announced in December will be tossed over the side once the new administration delivers its 2022 budget. But changes will come, either at the edges or wholesale, in the coming months.

That work will come alongside critical decisions over how to posture in the Pacific, where the 7th Fleet has been running more freedom of navigation operations in the Taiwan Strait, with three coming this month alone. The Dec. 31st transit by two Japan-based destroyers marked the 13th mission through the sensitive strait in 2020, and came as China was kicking off a major war game in the South China Sea.

The shipbuilding plan will influence all else and will set the gears in motion for what the fleet will look like for decades to come.  

One of the big challenges early in 2021 for Lloyd Austin, if he’s confirmed as the next Defense Secretary, is “how is he going to galvanize the government — Congress and the executive branch — behind an aggressive and I would say late recapitalization of the fleet and its industrial base,” said Brent Sadler, a senior fellow for naval warfare and advanced technology at the Heritage Foundation.

Congress has shown willingness to increase the Navy’s budget, but the Trump administration waited four years to come up with a plan to increase the size of the fleet, dumping it on the Pentagon’s doorstep just as the moving vans started pulling up to the White House.

Still, January should offer us some new clues about what the Navy is planning. 

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday is expected to release both the long-awaited Unmanned Campaign Plan and his Navigation Plan in January, the latter acting as his general guidance to the fleet. The new documents will fall in on December’s 30-year shipbuilding plan, which will no doubt be carved up and revamped.

The Unmanned Plan has been eagerly anticipated for months, and promises to be the first time the Navy publishes a document that wraps all of the service’s hundreds of unmanned aerial, surface and subsurface vehicles into one coherent whole. 

A big trick will be securely pushing information across multiple domains, allowing manned ships and submarines to link up with unmanned assets across a single network, which brings up the next big challenge for the service next year — building out its own version of the JADC2 and linking it to the Army/Air Force effort to link sensors and shooters across domains.

The unmanned plan will very much be a work in progress as 2021 grinds on however. The Navy is still early on in testing and refining requirements for what will likely be hundreds of new unmanned assets, from missile-carrying ships to small underwater drones.  

“It’s really tough to write requirements documents in a vacuum or without being able to test things or try things or think through new concepts,” Navy acquisition chief James Geurts told reporters recently. “Think of this as an alignment document so that we can align all the different activities going on.”

Overhanging all of this, however, is the big unknown for 2021. What path will the Biden team craft for the Navy to follow, given that the Trump administration unveiled it’s version of the 30-year shipbuilding plan in December, deep into the president’s lame duck period.

That plan called for a whopping $27 billion shipbuilding budget in 2022, a huge increase from the $19 billion requested in 2021, and a topline of $33 billion by 2026. All that extra cash would build 82 new ships between 2022 and 2026, at a cost of $147 billion — a staggering increase from the Navy’s previous plan to build 44 new ships between 2021 through 2025 at a price tag of $102 billion.

It’s not at all clear that the Navy is wedded to that vision. The distancing began with its Dec. 10 rollout by several admirals who requested anonymity to describe it to reporters. That phone call was met with profound silence from the service’s leadership; almost a month later neither Gilday or Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite have uttered a single word of support for it, a profound reaction for a plan that would add billions to their budget and supply dozens of new ships.

One major component of the planned growth — no matter what shape it takes — will be building more subs, which will play an increasingly important role in checking Chinese growth in the Pacific and Russian movements in the Arctic and North Atlantic.

“We are in the initial studies of doing that analysis of how you go ramp up for three a year,” Rear Adm. David Goggins, the program executive officer for submarines said recently. Building more submarines is a heavy lift however, especially considering the tightrope the Navy is walking by kicking off the construction of its new Columbia-class submarines in ‘21, which is the service’s highest priority.

“Three submarines per year is completely unachievable within the Battle Force 45 cost constraints,” said Bryan Clark of the Hudson Institute. “To get that third submarine every year, you had to add money to the shipbuilding budget, and that’s $3.5 billion for additional block five submarines or block six or seven,” he added. 

To increase the undersea fleet to 70 or 80 submarines in coming decades would cost around $70 billion, but with the Navy’s new frigates, amphibious ships, and aircraft carriers also baked into the budget, “you’re probably going to have to take that from another service,” Clark said. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley has already predicted “bloodletting” among the services on the path to funding the Navy in upcoming budgets.

Finally, China. The new transits through the Taiwan Strait and the dual carrier operations in the South China Sea have set the bar high for the next administration. China has “lost face” in the South China Sea in recent months, Heritage’s Sadler said, from their failed bullying of Malaysian commercial ships and the US intervention during the West Capella incident, to the increased US presence in the region. And Beijing might be looking to make a splash. 

“I would say start watching things in March,” Sadler said. “all the way through to the height of summer because the Chinese will be coming off the Chinese New Year and all of their major exercises start building up,” at the end of May. Like the Russians, China likes to use large exercises for cover “if they’re going to do something untoward on scale,” so it may be a heady time for Beijing to challenge the new team at the White House. Of course, that will also reveal just how the Chinese have assessed the Biden administration’s intentions.(D.S.).

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