By the time the Pentagon rolls out its annual budget request each spring, leaders usually have hashed out the details and present themselves — at least in public — as a united front.
Not this year.
The Defense Department this month rejected a key element of the Navy’s newest shipbuilding plan, touching off a behind-the-scenes scrum that spilled out into public view this week over the future of troop-carrying ships that are the centerpiece of the Marine Corps’ seaborne mission.
The disagreement raises questions over what direction Pentagon leadership wants to go in building new amphibious ships to ferry Marines and their equipment around the globe as the Corps pivots to countering China after two decades in the Middle East.
It’s the latest flareup in a yearslong debate over what kind of ships to build for the Marines, as policymakers try to chart a course for the future in which Beijing has quickly emerged as a military and economic rival.
The Navy on Monday announced that this year’s budget blueprint won’t include money to fund the 17th San Antonio-class amphibious ship, a $1.6 billion vessel that carries Marines and launches helicopters and watercraft.
The reason comes down to money, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday said Wednesday.
“The driving issue here that drove that decision had to do with cost,” Gilday said at the McAleese Defense Programs conference, explaining that it was the Office of the Secretary of Defense’s decision to carry out a “strategic pause” in buying and constructing amphibs.
He noted the unit cost of the first three ships belonging to the ship class’s latest version — called Flight II — has gone up with each hull. “We’re moving in the wrong direction,” he said.
The same day Gilday spoke, Marine Commandant Gen. David Berger rejected the cost argument. “You could say it’s more expensive today. Well yeah, so is a gallon of milk, right, than last year. I got that. But in base dollars, I think industry is driving that price down.”
The decision to pause the ship funding is part of a wider relook at the Navy’s amphibious ship programs ordered by the Pentagon, to consider whether they align with broader policy goals. The Navy had only just submitted an amphibious plan to Congress in December, but the Pentagon ordered a redo and the Navy, to the frustration of the Marine Corps, did little to push back.
“We just did a study and came up with a number [of ships], we would like to know what has changed over the past few weeks” that requires a new look, said one Marine officer, who like others quoted for this story, was granted anonymity to speak candidly about an internal issue.
The Navy referred questions on the need for the new study to the Pentagon, and Pentagon officials did not respond to a request for comment.
SETTING A COURSE
The issue of the amphibious fleet in particular has become a cornerstone issue for the Navy as it struggles to modernize to meet China’s increasingly effective anti-ship capabilities, putting large ships such as amphibs and aircraft carriers at greater risk.
Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro, speaking at the McAleese conference, didn’t say the service is walking away from the amphibious ship program, but instead is taking the pause before putting money toward the ship and any next-generation amphibious ships, which the Marines say they desperately need.
Berger argued that the Navy is squandering a moment where the shipbuilding industry is primed to keep building the vessels. But now “we’re going to take a timeout. From my perspective, I can’t accept that when the inventory, the capacity has to be no less than 31” ships.
The number is a reference to the “bare minimum” of what the Corps says it needs to meet Pentagon tasking.
The actual number of hulls will drop to 24 this decade if Congress allows the Navy to follow through on plans it presented on Monday to begin retiring some of the oldest ships without buying replacements.
The problem has real-world consequences. The Marines have said that twice over the past year the service has been unable to deploy in emergency situations due to lack of ships. The first time came when Russia invaded Ukraine and a Marine unit couldn’t head to the region, and the second was in February when a unit couldn’t provide humanitarian assistance after the devastating earthquake in Turkey.
The halting of the ship’s production this week along with the Pentagon’s squelching of the Navy’s plans recall a similar event in 2020, when then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper publicly rejected the Navy’s annual 30-year shipbuilding plan, and personally oversaw the writing of a new document that was released months later, in the lame duck days of the Trump presidency.
This split between the Navy and Marine Corps “is partly [the Pentagon’s] fault,” according to Bryan Clark, a retired Navy officer now at the Hudson Institute.
The competing visions for the size and composition of the fleet revolve around how it will prepare to confront or deter China in the coming years.
“The problem is the large amphib requirement is based largely on peacetime presence needs, rather than warfighting scenarios,” where amphibious operations would not likely be heavily employed, Clark said. The Pentagon “has prioritized meeting needs for defending an invasion of Taiwan and other warfighting scenarios over presence needs, so the large amphibious ship requirement goes unfilled.”
While strategies remain in flux, neither the Pentagon nor the Navy has been able to offer a detailed explanation as to why the December study needed immediate rethinking.
“If you want to kill a program, you commission study after study and you study it to death,” a Senate aide said.
Leaders across the Pentagon are “really at loggerheads” on the amphibious ship issue, and “coupled with the strategic pause comments, it really gets you to a place where you can understand that the anti-amphibious coalition is in the driver’s seat on this one,” the aide continued.
PLANS HELD UP
The amphibious plan, which is being worked on by the Navy, Marines and the Pentagon’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office is just one of three shipbuilding plans the Navy owes the Pentagon and Congress this year.
The annual 30-year shipbuilding plan, which is required to be submitted along with the budget, is late for the second year in a row. Navy officials say it will be released in the coming weeks, however.
The Navy came under fire last year from Capitol Hill for releasing a 30-year plan document that offered three options rather than a single plan. Under that guidance, the first option would build a 316-ship fleet by 2052, the second sketched a 327-ship Navy and the third, which the service said in the document that the industrial base is currently unable to support, would yield a 367-ship fleet. The first two options fell short of the congressionally mandated 355-ship Navy, which the service maintained as its goal since 2016 but had made no progress toward reaching.
Del Toro confirmed this week he’ll present a document with the three options again, and the new plan will also include a menu of possibilities for Congress and Pentagon leadership to consider.
The top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Roger Wicker, said in a statement this week that “no matter the favored phrase of the day – ‘divest to invest,’ ‘strategic pause,’ ‘capability over capacity,’ – the president’s defense budget is, in practice, sinking our future fleet.” Wicker’s state of Mississippi is home to the Huntington Ingalls shipyard in Pascagoula, which builds the San Antonio-class ships.
While the new $255 billion Navy budget was the highest ever, “we’re not going to be swimming in money forever,” said Gilday, the Navy admiral. “We’ve got to start making some hard decisions.”