The amphibious transport dock ship USS San Diego (LPD 22) leads other U.S. Navy amphibious warships during a simulated straits transit off the coast of southern California in 2017.

The amphibious transport dock ship USS San Diego (LPD 22) leads other U.S. Navy amphibious warships during a simulated straits transit off the coast of southern California in 2017. U.S. Navy / Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Apprentice Chad Swysgood

Navy Shipbuilding Plan Draws Lawmakers’ Ire Anew

Like last year’s, the new long-range plan offers a three-option menu and fewer amphibs than Congress mandates.

Like its predecessor, the U.S. Navy’s 2024 long-range shipbuilding plan is a tardy, multiple-choice document that appears to fall short of the legal requirement for amphibious warships. And some lawmakers are not happy.

“Why are you violating the law? And why does your shipbuilding plan have no remote interest for the next 30 years, as far as I can tell, of hitting the statutory mandate that we told you to hit?” Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, asked Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro at a Tuesday hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“It is my responsibility to follow the law. It's also my responsibility to ensure that we just don't waste taxpayer money on vessels, for example, that will never see the light of day,” Del Toro replied.

The hearing was held the day after the Navy sent lawmakers its latest plan for the next three decades of shipbuilding. The 31-page document added detail to the outlook promoted in the service’s 2024 budget request, which it sent to Congress in February.

Sullivan was complaining about the Navy’s stated plan to allow its amphibious fleet to drop to 29 ships in 2024, below the 31-ship floor that Congress mandated in the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act.

He was not alone. Several senators remarked on the amphibious-ship plan during the hearing or in later emailed statements. 

“The Navy’s shipbuilding plan is a blueprint to end America’s command of the sea,” said a statement by Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., the committee’s ranking member, whose state is home to a one of America’s largest naval shipbuilders. “It not only fails to articulate a way to reach the Navy’s battle force requirement, but also proposes shrinking our fleet in the near term. This suggestion indicates our defense leaders have no real plan to address the existential threat China’s growing navy poses to our interests and to our ally Taiwan.”

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., who leads the committee’s Seapower panel and whose own district has another large shipbuilder, declared himself “underwhelmed by the timing of this report,” which the Navy sent hours before the committee’s posture hearing and after the Seapower subcommittee’s own hearing.

The 30-year shipbuilding plan would buy no more LPD 17-class amphibious transport dock ships. Navy leaders put purchases of these ships on hold in March after a study ordered by the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

It also says that the Battle Force Ship Assessment and Requirement Report—another ship review—will be done by June and will shape next year’s long-range shipbuilding plan.

“Secondly, telling us that this plan is going to be heavily supplemented and impacted by the Battle Force Ship Assessment and Requirement Report, which won’t be out before June—likely after the NDAA’s committee processes is done—is not that helpful,” Kaine said in his statement. “Lastly, on the issue of amphibious ships: the Marine Corps has made it clear that they need 31, and Congress shares that view. I’m frustrated that neither this plan nor the President’s budget gets us there.”

Like last year’s version, the new shipbuilding plan provides three options beyond the half-decade of the future years defense program, or FYDP. None of the options has the Navy returning to the minimally required 31 amphibious ships. 

The top request in the Marine Corps’ 2024 unfunded priorities list is to fully fund LPD 33 to try to get the fleet back to the minimum requirement, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger told senators at Tuesday’s hearing.

“In the shipbuilding plan and the budget submitted, there is no plan to get to that number. And that's why I put it as the top of the unfunded list,” Berger said. “I know it to be the operational requirement and the law. And I saw no plan to get there.”

The plan’s first two options, which includes one based on the 2024 budget request, have “a budget with limited growth matched to planned, but not yet achieved, industrial capacity,” with ship construction funding set at 2.1 percent growth after the FYDP, the document said.

The difference between the first two options is how the Navy plans out its purchase of attack submarines, destroyers, and unmanned platforms. The second option would add more submarines by buying Virginia-class subs along with the future SSN(X) instead of stopping one program before buying the latter, according to the document. This option would also delay buying of the new DDG(X) and buy the Arleigh Burke-class DDG 51 Flight IIIs for longer, ultimately producing fewer of each destroyer class, the document said.

“This enables a larger SSN [attack submarine] force and procurement of a larger combat logistics force due to savings created by continuing to buy the less expensive SSN and fewer DDG(X),” the document said. “The savings also allows procurement of up to one-third more non-battle force ships, such as [Large Unmanned Surface Vessels], which are not shown in these inventory tables.”

The third option would produce the largest Navy but require the most money. It would buy an aircraft carrier every four years instead of every five, keep the SSN(X) and DDG(X) on schedule, and buy two of each a year, the document said.

This option is the only one that gets the Navy to 355 ships or more, starting in 2042. The first option rises to 331 ships in 2039 and 2040 before shrinking, while the second gets to 331 ships in 2039, then declines.

“To restore our fleet and deter the Chinese Communist Party, any shipbuilding plan must start with achieving the statutory 355-ship fleet as soon as possible,” Wicker said in his statement. “It must also make monumental investments in domestic maritime infrastructure, workforce, and innovative technologies to sustain the Navy that this country needs. Congress must again step up and ensure that our fleet grows in response to the threat we face in the Pacific.” 

All three options “assumed industry eliminates excess construction backlog and produces future ships on time and within budget,” the document says.