Workers flood the dry dock holding the aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy.

Workers flood the dry dock holding the aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy. Ashley Cowan/HII

White House Shipbuilding Plan Would Shrink Ford Carrier Class Over Navy Objections

Critics say the bulked-up fleet plan would cut dangerously into Army, Air Force budgets — if Congress and the Biden administration followed it.

Updated at 10 p.m. Eastern with comments from a senior administration official.

The Trump administration is poised to unveil a 30-year shipbuilding blueprint calling for one less big-deck carrier but dozens more warships than previous fleet plans — a course critics say is unaffordable and would lead to massive cuts to the Air Force and Army.

Defense officials are sounding alarm bells, warning that the plan could undermine the Pentagon’s efforts to keep ahead of technological advancements by China and Russia.

“These reductions [to the Army and Air Force] are completely unsustainable for any service, and will result in a hollow force if they remain,” said one official who has not been authorized to discuss the plan.

White House officials, in an Office of Management and Budget document reviewed by Defense One, say the shipbuilding plan and its overall Pentagon budget framework for fiscal 2022 “balances the significant increases in naval forces with consistent investments in joint warfighting capabilities to support Great Power competition and to counter emerging challenges in the Indo-Pacific.”  

The document says that framework prioritizes not only shipbuilding, but also “tactical aircraft modernization, long range fires and hypersonics, missile defense, and space capabilities.”

That’s in line with comments made last week by Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who said he would advocate for naval, air, and space platforms.

Pulling overseas troops back to the United States is part of the way White House officials hope to find more money for these high-priority areas, said a senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the budget framework and the shipbuilding plan.

The shipbuilding plan, which could be unveiled as soon as Thursday, is being prepared for early release by the lame-duck administration largely for political reasons, U.S. officials said. The Navy typically sends its annual update to the 30-year shipbuilding plan to Congress in February, along with the Pentagon’s budget request. Such plans are never binding, though Congress generally follows them as it authorizes and appropriates defense funding. In this case, the incoming Biden administration is likely to make changes. But the early public release of a plan could cause a political headache for the Biden team on Capitol Hill if they can be portrayed as “weakening” the Navy.

“Our updated 30-year shipbuilding plan is a credible, affordable roadmap for achieving maritime supremacy and sending a strong message to our adversaries like China,” Russ Vought, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, said in an emailed statement from a spokeswoman.

Asked why the administration was hastening to present a budget proposal in its final weeks, the senior administration official said: “The goal here is to provide a framework and a five-year plan that we feel fits the national security of the country while also letting the taxpayers know: here’s how we plan to pay for it.”

Even the Navy, which would see its budget increase substantially under the plan, has opposed or questioned some of the Trump administration’s recommendations, saying they are too risky or aggressive, according to U.S. officials and internal government documents reviewed by Defense One.

Navy leaders also oppose the plan’s call to buy four Ford-class aircraft carriers, one fewer than planned. 

However, Vought and Robert O’Brien, President Trump’s national security advisor, wrote Wednesday night that the shipbuilding plan would “maintain its current 11 Ford aircraft carriers while investing in a new class of carriers to follow.” Their oped about the plan was posted by the Wall Street Journal.

The Navy currently has one Ford-class carrier and 10 Nimitz-class carriers.

Cutting the fifth Ford carrier would leave the Navy with nine carriers in 2040, seven in in 2046 and fewer than seven in the 2050s, service planners told White House Office of Management and Budget officials in recent correspondence. That’s less than the “eight to 11” carriers that the Navy recommended in an internal Future Naval Force Study earlier this year, and that then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper endorsed in October in what he called Battle Force 2045. 

Navy leaders told OMB that the fifth carrier is a requirement “based on operational need, executability, and industrial base health.” OMB rejected the Navy’s plea. Instead, the White House wants the Navy to begin work on a new class of aircraft carrier around the middle of the next decade.

The senior administration official said that OMB and the Navy were not in disagreement, but instead were going through the typical deliberative process to determine the right type of carrier would give the U.S. a technological edge.

“I think what it has been is a back and forth on what we believe is the ideal way forward to consider a new generation of technology for what a carrier might need and whether that requires a new class or just a can we do modifications to the current technologies,” the official said.

“The future of the United States Navy includes next-generation carriers, a lot of them,” the official added.

“The question of whether the Navy should shift at some point from procuring CVNs like the [Ford] class to procuring smaller and perhaps nonnuclear-powered aircraft carriers has been a recurrent matter of discussion and Navy study over the years, and is currently an active discussion in the Navy.” Congressional Research Service analyst Ron O’Rourke wrote in a Dec. 9 report.

Like the other defense-budget planning currently being pursued with unusual vigor for a lame-duck White House, the decision to forgo a fifth Ford-class supercarrier could easily be changed by Congress or the Biden administration, a defense official said.

“We will not comment on future budget or shipbuilding decisions until the budget request is submitted to Congress next year,” a Navy spokeswoman said in an emailed statement.

A spokeswoman for Huntington Ingalls Industries, which builds the Ford class, also declined to comment. A White House Office of Management and Budget spokeswoman was not immediately available for comment.

The proper future size and composition of the Navy — it currently has 296 warships — has been hotly debated in recent years as the Pentagon has looked for ways to counter China’s growing military and strategic ambitions. In January, the Navy put the finishing touches on its own plan, only to have Esper reject it. Instead, the SecDef launched a broader effort, dubbed the Future Naval Force Study, which recommended a low option of 382 ships and a high option of 440 ships. In October, Esper announced the outlines of a new plan, which he dubbed “Battle Force 2045,” calling for more than 500 total ships, including some 140 to 240 unmanned vessels.

Now Trump administration officials want to spend nearly $170 billion on new ships between 2022 and 2026 — increasing the Navy’s annual shipbuilding budget from $27 billion in fiscal 2022 to more than $39 billion in 2026. The money would buy 82 warships and 21 unmanned vessels. The Navy’s fiscal 2021 shipbuilding budget, which still hasn’t been approved by Congress, about $20 billion. These funding increases would come from cuts to the Army and Air Force budgets and from other military-wide savings.

The investments would put the Navy on track to reach, by 2031, its four-year-old goal of 355 ships, according to the documents. 

The White House is also calling to accelerate buys of the new Constellation-class frigates. The 30-year plan lays the groundwork for hiring a second company to build them. In April, the Navy ordered the first of its class from Fincantieri Marinette Marine in Wisconsin, with delivery in 2026 and options to buy nine more. The design, expected to be finalized next year, is based on the FREMM frigate operated by Italy and France.

As well, the plan calls for early investments in a new attack submarine, the SSN(X), which would enter service around 2040. The Navy would continue to buy two Virginia-class attack submarines each year, ramping up to three in 2026. In October, Esper said: “If we do nothing else, the Navy must reach production of three new Virginia-class subs per year.”