Although the Defense Department will absorb cuts of $487 billion compared with previously planned spending over the next 10 years, leaders in the Navy and Marine Corps say it’s far from doomsday.
Robert Work, the undersecretary of the Navy, said for his two services, the glass is half-full — maybe even more than that.
“It’s three-quarters full,” he said. “The glass-half-empty guys focus on the Budget Control Act. They think that all that’s going on is a big budget drill.” It’s not, Work told the Navy League’s Sea Air Space conference Wednesday. He predicted the remainder of the 21st century would be a “new golden age” for the military’s maritime forces.
“A lot of you probably think I’ve missed my meds,” he said. “But the reason I think that is that the Budget Control Act triggered a strategic review, and it’s the biggest such effort since 1954. There’s nothing remotely like it. The last one was in 1953 when President Eisenhower entered the White House when we were in a war in Korea, and he wanted to bring our national security and our national means into balance. This is the biggest thing since that. That’s what you have to keep in mind when you read this document.”
Work said as Defense drawdowns go, this one’s relatively mild. He said it’s the fourth drawdown since World War II, and assuming that lawmakers don’t let sequestration go into effect, it will be the smallest pullback in Defense spending since then.
For the Navy in particular, the good news is that the spending cuts weren’t split into equal thirds among the military departments as in some past drawdowns. Work said some of the chief priorities of the shift in strategy greatly favor Navy capabilities: a shift in focus to the Asia Pacific region, conducting international engagements with fewer boots on the ground and maintaining freedom of access on the high seas.
“After reviewing that guidance, there’s no other time in our history where Navy and Marine Corps forces were so central to our national strategy,” he said. “Our vision of a Navy-Marine Corps team that’s operated forward matches that strategy perfectly.”
Under DoD’s proposed budget, the military services that would shrink the least over the next five years are the Navy and Air Force. By 2017, DoD projects the Navy’s total size, including active and reserve components will drop by 3.9 percent. The Marine Corps, by contrast, will shrink by 8.3 percent, but leaders argue that’s mostly due to the drawdown of surge forces that were needed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Marines say they do have some concerns about funding in the coming years, particularly in the areas of replacing equipment that was damaged or destroyed in the wars and taking care of Marines who have been in a period of prolonged combat.
Nonetheless, like Work, Gen. Joseph Dunford, the assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, said the DoD strategy makes him optimistic about his service’s future.
“I am not unmindful about future challenges, but this past year of budget process has validated the mission and the role that the Marine Corps makes to our security,” he said. “The comprehensive review outlines the need for forward deployed forces, it outlines the need for crisis response capability, it outlines the need for assured access and our ability to project power, and all of those things are right down in the wheelhouse of the Marines.”
Despite the fact that the Navy fared relatively well in the DoD budget guidance, many Republicans in Congress have been harshly critical of the Pentagon’s plans for future naval forces.
House Armed Services Committee chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) has repeatedly blasted a budget he said would create the smallest Navy since before World War I.
“Though the administration says we’re shifting to Asia, they’re actually reducing the number of ships and planes we have available to respond to contingencies anywhere,” McKeon said in a speech last month at the Ronald Reagan Library.
But both Work and his boss, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, have been giving a full-throated defense of their shipbuilding plans this week. “As I said in my last round of budget hearings, that bed was already on fire when I got in it,” Mabus told a Navy League audience Tuesday.
He noted that the Navy’s fleet had already declined from 316 ships and 377,000 sailors in 2001 to 283 ships and 328,000 sailors by the time he was sworn in as Navy secretary in 2009.
“And now, in spite of a much tougher fiscal environment and in spite of having to retire some ships early because of the Budget Control Act, the fleet size numbers are moving in the right direction,” Mabus said.
The Navy said its new 30-year shipbuilding plan puts it on track to reach a fleet size of 300 ships by 2019 and maintain the fleet at that size. But Mabus said comparing the current Navy fleet to those of past eras is like “comparing a smartphone to a telegraph.”
Work made a similar point. He said today’s ships are far more capable and flexible, and that comparing today’s plans with those for larger fleet footprints in past decades is like comparing apples and oranges.
“It just doesn’t tell you anything. The only question you ask yourself is how many ships do we need to implement the national strategy of today?” he said. “But regardless of what happens, we will hit 300 ships in 2019 regardless of what happens. Because of the decisions we’ve made over the past few years, we have about 40 ships on contract right now. The American flag will be everywhere it has been before, and it will be as much as you’d have with a 600 ship Navy.”