"It is my goal to make the London Center, the premier foreign policy institute in the country, one that is shaping
the debate on international affairs and influencing decisions emerging from the Congress."
The Chief Of Naval Operations (CNO) recently stated that the US Navy will face “flat or declining budgets” and that the US Fleet will be “shrinking.”
At the same time, there are vast amounts of money being spent by the federal government - more than $6 trillion this year (and growing debt). Note, the national debt will exceed “national income” in 2026 and reach 107% of GDP in 2031. It’s also worth noting there’s a great deal more debt, particularly as to unfunded annuities, but that can wait for another day.
During that period (2022 - 2031), federal spending will continue to grow. Fiscal Year 2021 is already 8 months old, so, looking at the period 2022 through 2031 yields the following (all from the Congressional Budget Office):
Gross Domestic Product (GDP): $23.1 trillion in 2022 rising to $32.9 trillion in 2031, an increase of 42%
Total Federal Budget: $5.004 trillion in 2022 rising to $7.32 trillion in 2031, an increase of 46%
Total Mandatory Spending: $3.537 trillion in 2022 rising to $5.481 trillion in 2031, an increase of 55%
Total Non-Defense Discretionary Spending: $0.709 trillion in 2022 rising to $0.893 trillion in 2031, a 26% increase
Total Defense Spending: $0.758 trillion in 2022 rising to $0.946 trillion in 2031, a 25% increase
Federal Debt: $23.5 trillion in 2022 rising to $35.3 in 2031, a 50% increase
And, of note:
Defense spending in 2022 will equal 15.1% of the federal budget and 3.3% of GDP.
Defense spending in 2031 will equal 12.9% of the federal budget and 2.9% of GDP.
It’s also worth noting the CBO is forecasting an annual inflation rate averaging 2.1% between now and 2031. If that forecast is low, this would all look very different.
There are a lot of other pieces: Veterans Benefits may well be considered as part of our national security “bill,” but are not counted in DOD spending, they’re counted under mandatory spending, as they are, obviously, mandatory. Elements of various other departments are not counted with the DOD but clearly play a roll in our national security, to include everything from the Department of Homeland Security and the Coast Guard to customs officers and the Department of Energy.
But what is the point of this spending? If you are going to spend $700+ billion per year for 10 years ($8.2 trillion on defense between 2022 and 2031), surely you have a clear idea as to what it is you are trying to do.
Returning to the CNO’s statement, what should the Navy look like by 2031?
How many ships? As Congress and the nation look ahead to 2031, How many aircraft carriers do we need? How many bombers? How many tanks?
To which the only correct answer is: It Depends.
To make this perhaps more understandable, answer a personal question: How many pickup trucks to you need? And of what carrying capacity?
The answer is: “To do what?” If you have a small farm the answer may be “Just one.” A large farm may need a half dozen. If you live in New York City the answer is probably "Zero.” Unless you think that you can “look cool with the ladies” in your completely tricked out F-150 that will never see a muddy puddle.
In short, before you have any discussion on what your garage needs to hold, you need to figure out "purpose.” In the terminology of nations, that translates into “national goals.” So, first there must be a discussion on concrete national goals. Then, there follows a discussion on “grand strategy,” a broad plan on how the nation is going to achieve those goals. This is tightly interwoven with a discussion on costs; how much are we willing to spend (in all types of assets) to achieve those goals?
This seems obvious, but when has there been a clear discussion on overarching national goals in the last four months? These need clear goals, not broad hand-waving. Strategies require clarity. What are our top five national goals, in clear terms, in order of precedence, terms that you might use to construct a plan?
Then, and only then, do we start to construct specific strategies: a naval strategy, an air strategy, an agricultural strategy, etc. Many of those strategies will have little real federal government role except to facilitate and assist the citizenry in their efforts to achieve them. Others, such as a naval strategy, are purely in the realm of the government.
Once we’ve developed a naval strategy (and an air strategy, ground strategy, etc.), then we can begin the arguments as to force structure necessary to execute that strategy.
All of this is, or should be, the bread and butter of the Joint Staff and the Service Staffs. Yet even the most cursory review of the procurement efforts of the Navy (and the other services) shows that the service staffs have failed at this, their fundamental responsibilities. A particularly bright friend of mine noted just a short while ago just how clear and straightforward was the Navy’s maritime strategy that came out 40 years ago. Today, while there are documents that have similar titles, there is no clear, coherent maritime strategy. Nor is there any clarity in the ships and aircraft the Navy is procuring or the training and maintenance being conducted in the fleet.
This is a failure of Navy leadership in the strictest sense. The admirals need to force the issue, and not expect strategic thought from politicians. And the politicians would probably welcome the professional assistance.
Clearly, there have been vague generalities stated. But the DOD in general, and the Navy in particular, have been living with vague generalities for more than 30 years. The Navy has been cut in half in that time frame, even while investing in one problem program after another: USS Ford, the Zumwalt class destroyer, LCS, the F-35, etc.
We have been told the great external national security threats are Russia and China. China continues to expand an already large and capable navy, while the US Navy continues to not only, to use the CNO’s term, shrink, but to seemingly steam in circles.
Navy leadership needs to lead the nation in a discussion on maritime strategy - a worthy subject for a maritime nation. Force the issue. Take another turn on the windlass. Trim your sails and get on course. The Nation needs it.
About Pete O'Brien
Peter O’Brien has more than 30 years of successful leadership and planning experience in a wide range of organizations afloat and ashore on three continents. Mr. O’Brien’s Navy career included ten years at sea, more than a dozen years stationed overseas and multiple ...