Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) speaks to reporters in the Senate subway on his way to a vote at the U.S. Capitol on March 14, 2023.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) speaks to reporters in the Senate subway on his way to a vote at the U.S. Capitol on March 14, 2023. Getty Images / Drew Angerer

Seapower Chairman Wants Answers on Amphib Fleet Funding

Sen. Tim Kaine also said he expects the Navy’s 30-year-shipbuilding plan this week.

The new Senate Armed Services Seapower subcommittee chairman wants to know why the 2024 defense budget request lacks support for the 31 amphibious ships Congress mandated last year.

“I'm still a little mystified by the reticence of the president's budget with respect to meeting our 31 amphib requirement,” Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., told reporters Monday, adding “The president's budget doesn't suggest that they're making that kind of an investment to get us to 31. And so obviously digging into what's up is a key thing that we're going to be involved in as a committee.”

The Navy’s 2024 budget request would buy nine battle force ships but no amphibs, while also asking for the early retirement of three Whidbey Island-class dock landing ships, or LSDs, due to their “poor material condition.” The budget request also does not show any funding through 2028 for San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock ships, or LPDs, that would replace the LSDs and thus maintain the legally required level of amphibious ships.

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday previously said the decision to pause buying LPD 17 Flight II ships was mostly due to their cost. But Kaine on Monday said the reasoning behind the pause is not clear.

“Do we need a strategic pause? I’ve not had anybody at the Navy level—CNO, [Marine Corps] commandant, or [Navy secretary]— tell me ‘We need a strategic pause and here’s why.’ I think that's a message that's coming out of [the office of the Secretary of Defense] or the [Office of Management and Budget],” Kaine said.

Top Navy and Marine Corps officials have consistently backed the 31-ship requirement, Kaine said, and “somebody upstairs was questioning that.” He confirmed that the Navy’s own classified amphib study says the requirement is 31 ships.

“So nobody has given me a reason why after this has been debated, everybody says they're on the same page, there's a study that shows it, that we need a strategic pause now,” he said. “I view that as—that may be coming from upstairs, but nobody has yet explained it to me. So, until somebody can explain it to me and convince me, I think we're all systems go for 31,” he said.

Navy Undersecretary Erik Raven said during the department’s budget rollout that OSD had directed the pause and a capabilities-based assessment.

“What we are making sure that we are doing as we move forward with our budget plans, is making sure that we have the right capabilities at the right price, aligned to not only meeting military requirements, but working with industry,” Raven said March 13. “And for LPD, we're taking a look at the acquisition strategy moving forward, again, to make sure that we would have the right capabilities at the right price and working with industry partners to put together that plan moving forward.”

The top item on the Marine Corps’ 2024 unfunded priorities list is $1.7 billion to buy LPD 33, according to the document obtained by Defense One.

Whether that ship or other amphibs are part of the Navy’s future will be revealed in the service’s upcoming 30-year shipbuilding plan, which Kaine said he expects to have “in the next day or so.”

Because of the “consistency” of the testimony by Navy and Marine Corps leaders for the amphibious ship requirement, Kaine believes members of the Seapower subcommittee will make sure the Navy has the funding to keep the amphib fleet from falling below 31 ships.

“I've received some tentative suggestion that we can still get to 31 if we just wait and put the money in next year,” he said. “But that is sending a confusing message that suggests they're not really committed to 31. I think the committee is committed to 31.”