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Navy Secretary seeks 3-5% annual budget increases

Theodore Roosevelt and Nimitz Carrier Strike Groups in the South China Sea Feb. 9, 2021. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Elliot Schaudt)

The U.S. Navy needs annual budget increases of three to five percent over inflation if it is to reach its shipbuilding goals and meet China’s “significant threat,” Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro said Thursday.

“I think we’re raising the alarm, certainly, and I think more members of Congress understand the real threat that China presents, not just to our national security, but our economic security. I think they’ll become more willing to invest more in the Department of Navy, both the Navy and the Marine Corps,” Del Toro said at the 2021 Aspen Security Forum in Washington, D.C.

Del Toro spoke the day after the Pentagon released its annual report on China’s military power, which estimates that the country will have 1,000 or more nuclear warheads by 2030, far more than estimated in last year’s report. China already has the world’s largest navy at 355 ships and submarines, many of which soon “will have the capability to conduct long-range precision strikes.”

If the U.S. Navy is to reach 355 ships—the goal service leaders put forth in 2016 and Congress ratified two years later—it needs budget increases of three to five percent over inflation, Del Toro said.

The Navy asked for $211.7 billion in 2022, essentially a flat budget, including $22.6 billion for shipbuilding procurement, less than what it received in 2021.

Del Toro, who was sworn in Aug. 9, arrived too late to influence the Navy’s 2022 budget but said he supports President Joe Biden’s budget.

China’s 17 naval shipyards produced 20 warships last year and is aiming to do the same this year, Del Toro said.

“It’s a significant threat. And so when we look at our shipbuilding capability, I am concerned that we need to make greater investments in shipbuilding,” he said.

The Navy’s newest 30-year shipbuilding plan, as described in its 2022 budget proposal, calls for growing the current fleet of 296 crewed ships to a hybrid force of 398 to 512 crewed ships and unmanned vessels. The Congressional Budget Office estimated in September that this would require $25 billion to $33 billion in each of the next 30 years.

Del Toro said the capability of the ships, not just the number of them, is key to deterring China. He said older ships could be upgraded, citing the modifications being made to the Zumwalt-class destroyers to arm them with hypersonic missiles.

“We obviously want to be able to build the most modern ships that we can, while maintaining some of the legacy ships that we have to be able to fight the conflict, should it present itself in the next two to three years, for example. So it’s a balance between all of those together,” he said.

Del Toro also said he hopes Congress will allow the Navy to stop buying F/A-18 Super Hornets so it can buy more F-35 Lightning IIs, which he said were better able to “meet the significantly increasing capabilities of the Chinese.” House lawmakers have added $1 billion for more Super Hornets to their version of the 2022 Appropriations bill.

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