Trump Budget Reduces Funds for Naval Shipbuilding

An LCS hull prepared for launch at Austal's Birmingham, Alabama yard (file image)

By The Maritime Executive 2017-05-23 22:04:01

On Tuesday, the Trump administration released its proposed budget for FY2018, including $639 billion in defense spending. The Navy would receive $171.5 billion of this amount, $6.5 billion more than in 2017. 

As expected, the budget would fully fund all planned ship depot maintenance, long under-resourced due to sequestration. This would would help clear a severe backlog of deferred maintenance on the attack submarine fleet, and would give the Navy ten more vessel maintenance availabilities than in the prior year. It also funds the continuation of a controversial refit for the Navy's aging Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruisers, the so-called "2/4/6" plan. In addition, the budget would fund aviation maintenance depots to their maximum current capacity. In a statement, the Navy said that these investments reflect the "importance of restoring wholeness in order to build capacity and improve lethality in the future."

Navy leaders have warned for years that underinvestment in maintenance is reducing readiness. In January, vice chief of naval operations Adm. Bill Moran cautioned that extended deployments and cost-cutting were a risky combination. “This long war we’re in and emerging or re-emerging threats have raised the stakes and kept us on the field longer than our bullpen is able to stay healthy . . . Deferred maintenance is insidiously taking its toll on the long-term readiness of our fleet.” 

However, the proposed budget would not provide as much for naval shipbuilding as some had hoped. A shipbuilding procurement budget of $20 billion would go towards one Ford-class carrier, two Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, two Virginia-class subs and only one Littoral Combat Ship (LCS). This list mirrors the Obama administration's plan, and it reduces funding for shipbuilding by about $1 billion compared with the enacted budget for FY2017. 

The Navy has often said that it needs to buy three LCS vessels per year in order to retain the skilled labor at Lockheed Martin-Marinette and Austal USA, the builders of the two LCS variants. If these yards’ backlogs decline, they would be forced to lay off workers, which would raise the cost and difficulty of resuming full production in future years. It would also raise the cost of a future "frigate" variant of the LCS, an option that the Navy is currently reviewing. In an interview May 4, White House Office of Management and Budget director Mick Mulvaney explained that the budget left out two LCS hulls because the “Navy doesn’t want them.”

In comments Tuesday, Pentagon comptroller John Roth emphasized that this year's budget is about preparing the military for the future, not about expanding its size. “You will not see a growth in force structure [in FY 2018]. You will not see a growth in the shipbuilding plan. You will not see a robust modernization plan," said Roth, speaking to USNI. 

While the budget reflects the president’s priorities, defense hawks in Congress described it as insufficient to meet the military’s needs. “President Trump’s $603 billion defense budget request is inadequate to the challenges we face, illegal under current law, and part of an overall budget proposal that is dead on arrival in Congress," said Sen. John McCain (R-Az), a frequent critic of the Trump administration and an advocate of increased defense spending.