The United States rose to global primacy as a maritime power whose merchant vessels plied international waters and whose navy secured the vital shipping lanes that still power the global economy. Today, the priority theater for the US strategically and militarily—the Indo-Pacific—is largely a maritime space, interspersed with islands and archipelagos and bordered by continents. But after decades of insufficient funding, misguided investments and poor strategic planning, the US has allowed its position of maritime superiority to slip away. As a result, its primary challenger and competitor, China, has seized the initiative to threaten not only the United States’ military position in the region, but its economic status as well.
The US Navy, perhaps more than any other branch of the armed forces, is poised to play a key role in Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy. While this role is often imagined in terms of conflict scenarios, the Navy’s first priority is the plethora of peacetime responsibilities assigned to it. One of them, to prepare for “the peacetime promotion of the national security interests and prosperity of the United States,” was explicitly codified in the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act to recognize the branch’s strategic role in preventing war.
As well as being warfighting organizations, navies are tools for conducting diplomacy. For instance, port visits in friendly states can highlight the benefits of strong bilateral ties or signal support for security partners. The US Navy’s combat capabilities, including its nuclear deterrent carried by a fleet of nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines, make it a powerful signaling device to friends and foes alike.
In a similar vein, Washington’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy rests upon key elements of international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS, which establishes a legal framework for use of the world’s oceans and seas as well as their resources. A commitment to keeping sea lines of communication open is a matter of bipartisan consensus in Washington and one of the United States’ most sacrosanct foreign-policy positions.
In order to uphold these commitments, the US needs a powerful navy capable of sustaining a forward presence in parts of the world that revisionist powers like China are attempting to fence off and illegally control. The Navy is also the first line of defense in deterring a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, a possibility long thought to be remote but that has become of increasing concern to US policymakers since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. But inadequate funding of the Navy, and Beijing’s enormous investment in its own naval capabilities, has left Washington without the capacity to deter China by itself.
Navies are not built overnight. China’s rapidly growing People’s Liberation Army Navy of today was set in motion almost four decades ago, when Beijing leveraged a surging economy and low material and labor costs to invest massively in shipbuilding facilities. For its part, the US recently committed to a naval buildup of its own during former President Donald Trump’s time in office. But that plan failed to even arrest the fleet’s decline, let alone put it on a trajectory for growth.
Few analysts took the Trump administration’s grandiose claims of a massive naval recapitalization effort seriously. Despite campaigning in 2016 on a pledge to build a 350-ship navy, Trump’s impact on the size of the Navy’s fleet once he took office was negligible. In fact, most of the increase seen during his administration had its roots in the administration of his predecessor, former President Barack Obama. That demonstrates the long lead times required for actually growing a navy and the difficulty of changing its growth trajectory without large budget increases and commensurate infrastructure investments.
Exacerbating the problem is the fact that the Navy’s own estimates for its desired force size—it currently has 296 battle force vessels in total—have varied wildly across several administrations. They ranged from 355 to 500 during the Trump and Obama administrations and are now at a yet-to-be-determined number between 316 and 367 today.
These swings in force estimates are illustrative of the Navy’s struggle to deliver a shipbuilding plan that meets its operational needs as well as congressional expectations. Part of the problem is capacity. No amount of money can build shipyards and a skilled workforce overnight, and US shipbuilding is short of both. Its public shipyards are roughly a century old. Its newest drydocks were built in the early 1960s, and no shipbuilder will hire and train more workers without a place to put them to work. The Navy also lacks a clear strategy for matching its intended acquisitions to its operational role that would help guide planning and appropriations. The last time it had one was in the twilight of the Cold War.
The Navy is also struggling under the fiscal, operational and reputational burdens stemming from a series of high-profile failures in recent years. The loss of a $1.2 billion amphibious assault ship in 2020 to a fire at a pier in San Diego; two deadly collisions in 2017 that claimed 17 lives; a submarine crash in 2021 that took one of the Navy’s most sophisticated vessels out of commission for years; and acquisitions debacles, including nearly an entire ship class—the Freedom-class Littoral Combat Ship—that appears headed for mothballs years ahead of schedule, have all done serious harm to the service.
An era of flat or shrinking budgets for the Navy has also made it difficult to grow the fleet without making some painful trade-offs in other areas of the US defense enterprise, which have until now been avoided. The recently released 2024 budget contains increases in some areas like readiness and munitions. But it fails to keep up with inflation, which, as some commentators have pointed out, leaves the Navy “at best, treading water.” The Navy is also decommissioning ships faster than they are being built, including retiring an entire class of Ticonderoga-class cruisers and several relatively new Littoral Combat Ships. The Navy’s plans for growth going forward seem unclear and include purchases of a large number of unmanned platforms that have yet to be developed. That creates significant uncertainty, given how often in the past several decades the Navy has banked on unproven technological leaps that ended up being stumbles.
At the heart of the problem is that the Navy’s leaders have been unable to articulate their needs to policymakers. They have instead provided a range of options of what they might be able to afford within assumed spending limits, but that satisfies no one. Meanwhile, an ongoing battle between Congress and successive presidential administrations of both parties has made matters worse, with the White House proposing budgets that are insufficient to ensure growth and Congress growing increasingly frustrated with the lack of direction that affords, as well as with the Navy’s lack of an articulated vision.
The Navy even struggles to maintain the ships it does have, with average delays in maintenance having increased by a factor of four in a decade. Ships are increasingly repaired with parts cannibalized from other vessels and are more frequently reporting serious equipment shortfalls. One of the insidious effects of these delays and inadequacies is that the longer a ship’s repairs are postponed, the more wear and tear it suffers. The result is that ships come in for maintenance in worse shape than planned and take longer to fix, which ultimately reduces the amount of time they spend at sea.
The Navy’s problems are fixable, but there are no simple solutions. Without increases in shipyard capacity, a clear acquisition strategy to grow the fleet and dependable appropriations for shipbuilding, the Navy will continue to struggle to even maintain itself, let alone grow. The recently announced AUKUS trilateral security pact between Australia, the UK and the US will bring an infusion of $3 billion to US shipyards that produce US nuclear submarines, in theory increasing their capacity to meet domestic and international demand for the Virginia-class attack submarine. Construction has begun on the first ship of the service’s new Constellation-class frigates, but that vessel will not enter service until 2026.
Without desperately needed investment in all aspects of national maritime infrastructure, including domestic shipbuilding and maintenance facilities, the US Navy will find it very difficult to achieve any of the ambitious goals for growth set out for it. And in an era defined by maritime commerce and geopolitical competition at sea, that is a foreboding prospect for the United States’ global interests.