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Pentagon chief calls for more spending on shipbuilding with ‘larger and more capable submarine force’

Then-Secretary of the Army, Dr. Mark Esper, talks to 10th Army Air and Missile Defense Command Soldiers at the Landstuhl Satellite Facility, Germany, on Sept. 24, 2018. (Pfc. Charles Thorman/U.S. Army)

Defense Secretary Mark Esper is calling for increased spending on shipbuilding with a larger submarine force, even as Electric Boat hires more workers and expands its shipyard to build the next-generation Columbia-class submarine.

But the drive to counter Chinese ambitions raises questions about where more money would come from in the Pentagon budget.

In a speech Wednesday at the RAND Corp., a Santa Monica, Calif., think tank, Esper said the future U.S. naval force will be more balanced in its ability to “deliver lethal effects from the air, from the sea and from under the sea.” The fleet will be made up of more and smaller surface combatants; manned, unmanned and autonomous surface and subsurface vehicles; unmanned carrier-based aircraft; a larger and more capable submarine force; and a modern strategic deterrent, Esper said.

He said a “future fleet” will comprise more than 355 manned and unmanned ships and be built in a “relevant time frame and budget-informed manner.” The Navy’s 2016 Force Structure Assessment called for a 355-ship Navy, up from the current 293.

“To achieve this outcome, we must increase funding for shipbuilding and the readiness that sustains a larger force,” Esper said. “Doing this, and finding the money within the Navy budget and elsewhere to make it real, is something both the Navy leadership and I are committed to doing.”

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Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., expressed frustration at the lack of details, such as timeline for executing the expansion.

The whole idea “is really just bar talk,” Courtney said.

The secretary of defense is required by law to send Congress a 30-year shipbuilding plan and force structure assessment. Neither has been delivered, said Courtney, chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, also said Congress “needs to see the details as soon as possible so that we can assess our strategy and funding needs going forward.”

To direct more money into new ships without pulling from other Navy accounts, Courtney said the Pentagon could tap the National Sea-Based Deterrence Fund established by Congress in 2014 to fund part of the Columbia-class submarine.

“They could do that today,” he said.

Esper said China, followed by Russia, are the top strategic competitors of the United States.

“These revisionist powers are using predatory economics, political subversion and military force in an attempt to shift the balance of power in their favor and often at the expense of others,” he said.

He cited as examples of China’s aggression, such as its sinking of Vietnamese vessels and escorting Chinese fishing fleets into exclusive economic zones of Indonesia and the Philippines. He called the actions examples of the “Communist Party’s attempt to reshape and undermine the international order that has benefited nations large and small.”

The Chinese Communist Party intends to complete the modernization of its armed forces by 2035 and is investing in long-range, autonomous and unmanned submarines it believes can be a “cost-effective counter to American naval power,” he said.

Despite China’s growing threat, Esper said it cannot match the United States in naval power.

“Even if we stopped building new ships, it would take the PRC (People’s Republic of China) years to close the gap when it comes to our capability on the high seas,” Esper said

Esper also accused Russia of “overtly redrawing international borders,” citing its invasion of Georgia in 2008, annexation of Crimea in 2014 and “sustained aggression” in Ukraine.

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© 2020 The Hartford Courant