Realizing President Trump’s goal of vastly strengthening America’s naval might won’t come cheap, and there are already signs that it is setting off an arms race on the high seas with an increasingly wary China.
A just-released report by the nonpartisan General Accounting Office (GAO) on the Navy’s shipbuilding plans for the near future and the next 30 years estimates that raising the number of combat-ready vessels from the current 272 to “a fleet of 308 battle force ships” would cost a total of $566 billion dollars – or an average of $18.9 billion a year in 2016 dollars.
The CBO says that is “36 percent more than the historical average of $13.9 billion (in 2016 dollars) in annual funding for new-ship construction.”
But Trump has said he wants a much larger number of combat vessels – as many as 350 ships – and a Navy “force assessment” released last December calls for a fleet of 355. The Navy wish list would push the price tag of the three-decade program up to $25 billion a year, or $750 billion over the next 30 years – a 60 percent increase over the current level of funding for new aircraft carriers, submarines, surface combat vessels and support ships, according to Navy Times. Those numbers do not include the cost of littoral combat ships or training ships.
Trump’s bid to rule the seas seems to be raising alarms in Beijing. China’s upcoming defense budget is expected to include significant new funding for the People’s Liberation Army Navy. Reuters says that given Trump’s “unpredictable approach on hot button issues, including Taiwan and the South and East China Seas, China is pushing to narrow the gap with the U.S. Navy.”
Reuters says that China does not break out how much it spends on its navy and the official figure for overall defense spending for 2016 – almost $140 billion – is thought to be understated. But last year, prior to the presidency of Donald Trump, Reuters said Chinese defense spending saw a rise of just 7.6 percent after a two decade string of double-digit increases.
In 2016, China commissioned 18 new ships, Reuters said, and recent reports indicate that it is building two new aircraft carriers to join the single one it has now – a retrofitted ship bought from Ukraine that is nowhere near comparable to any of the 10 carriers the U.S. has plying the seas.
Each U.S. carrier has an air wing of some 60 aircraft, according to the CBO, and for most of the time period it analyzed, Navy plans call for 11 carriers to be operational.
In its report, the CBO pointed out that the Navy’s shipbuilding goals over the next four years – which include four more Gerald Ford class aircraft carriers -- cannot be achieved under the budget caps that were imposed by Congress in 2011 and don’t run out until 2021. The CBO estimates that to stay within the caps, the Navy would have to build 9 fewer ships than the 38 it envisions over that time period.
That suggests that to assemble the Navy that the President says is needed to reassert American military dominance, he will have to do a good deal of convincing on Capitol Hill.