Report

Trump’s Navy Pick Would Have Limited Sway on Ship Goal

Trump loyalist Kenneth Braithwaite is not known in military circles for his naval thinking and is set to take a back seat to Defense Secretary Mark Esper in talks over Trump’s 355-ship plan.

Kenneth Braithwaite, U.S. President Donald Trump's nominee for navy secretary, listens during a Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing May 7 in Washington, DC.
Kenneth Braithwaite, U.S. President Donald Trump's nominee for navy secretary, listens during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in Washington on May 7. Photo by Al Drago-Pool/Getty Images

President Donald Trump’s pick to be the U.S. Navy’s civilian leader spent much of his confirmation hearing on Thursday decrying a breakdown in trust with the service’s leaders after controversies over the handling of ship collisions, the coronavirus outbreak, and military justice have marred the last three years.

Kenneth Braithwaite, the U.S. ambassador to Norway and a close friend of Defense Secretary Mark Esper, said the coronavirus outbreak aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt and the 2017 collisions of two destroyers in the Asia-Pacific caused a “breakdown in the trust of those leading the service” among sailors.

But Braithwaite would take the job with limited influence over the commander in chief’s top military campaign pledge: growing the U.S. fleet to 355 ships.

Instead, Braithwaite, a retired one-star rear admiral who told lawmakers he saw Trump’s ship goal as a “minimum” size for a future fleet, will be mostly sidelined—left to handle the aftermath of the Roosevelt’s coronavirus outbreak after Esper took control of the Navy’s fleet plan in February.

“It’s largely taken out of the Navy’s hands,” said Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. “It’s unclear how big of a vote the Navy is going to get, especially with Braithwaite coming in. He doesn’t have a strong set of opinions he’s expressed on Navy architecture and fleet design.”

Braithwaite would be the fourth Navy secretary in six months, after Esper clashed with his predecessors over how to hit the 355-ship mark and handle Trump’s influence over the service.

The White House intervened in an internal review of a Navy SEAL who posed with the corpse of an Iraqi captive, prompting then-Navy Secretary Richard Spencer’s firing. His acting successor, Thomas Modly, quickly found himself out of a job after firing Roosevelt Capt. Brett Crozier, who implored the service to allow him to disembark his sailors as the coronavirus spread in the ship’s tight quarters.

The 355-ship plan—which is overseen by David Norquist, the Defense Department’s No. 2 official, and the Pentagon’s cost assessment and program evaluation staff—is likely to call for more unmanned ships that would conduct surveillance and reconnaissance to push aside a China threat, sources familiar with the conversations say.

The fleet plan has become an increased focus for Esper since the arrival of Robert O’Brien as Trump’s national security advisor, sources told Foreign Policy, who publicly advocated for a larger fleet during the Obama administration and restated that pledge at the Reagan National Defense Forum in December.

“It’s a hot-button issue inside the White House,” one source familiar with the matter told Foreign Policy. “It’s an issue that Esper suddenly realized could get away from him in terms of managing his entire portfolio.”

Esper, who has asked the Navy, Air Force, and Marines to come up with more budgetary savings akin to the so-called “night court” sessions he ran as Army secretary, was concerned that former acting Navy Secretary Modly’s plan to grow the fleet would produce runaway costs for shipbuilding and growing the force, crowding out other service priorities.

While the Navy hasn’t opposed a push toward smaller vessels, military officials have sought to slow the transition away from larger ships, including carriers, destroyers, and frigates, which the Pentagon has traditionally used to deter bigger powers like Russia and China.

Those differences may have grown in recent months as Esper’s team has looked for savings across the Pentagon, sources say. In a speech at the Surface Navy Association’s annual conference in January, newly minted Naval Operations Chief Adm. Michael Gilday said point-blank that the Navy would have to grow its budget at the expense of other services, a remark that may have tipped Esper’s hand.

“That might have alerted Esper to say, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, guys, everybody play nice in the sandbox,’” the source familiar with the matter told Foreign Policy.

But Esper has taken considerable heat for keeping a tight hold on the Navy from lawmakers on Capitol Hill, who spent much of a budget hearing in February grilling the Pentagon chief over Trump’s budget, which many felt did not adequately invest in sea power.

“This is not a feel-good law,” Rep. Joe Courtney, the chairman of the sea power subpanel of the House Armed Services Committee, told Esper after the Defense Department failed to provide a 30-year shipbuilding plan to Congress. “Shipbuilding is a long game.”

Braithwaite, a Trump loyalist who is close to Esper and his West Point classmate David Urban, who has served as a senior advisor to the president’s 2016 and 2020 bids for the White House, is not known inside military circles for his naval thinking. But he will still have a busy portfolio as he tries to hit ambitious recruiting targets and keep the Navy ready for a potential fight with China despite the coronavirus pandemic.

Experts say the differences between Esper and the Navy in growing the size of the fleet are mostly limited to debates over how quickly to divest of larger ships that might be helpful in preventing China from making more territorial grabs in the Pacific Ocean. Modly, who was never nominated for the permanent job, first saw his powers curbed when Esper took away the fleet plan that his office thought wasn’t radical enough in divesting away from bigger ships.

Even so, choosing whether to go faster or slower in cutting destroyers and frigates could produce distinctly different trajectories over the next several years: toward a Navy that uses forward-based ships firing missile salvos from the sea and drones to snoop on Chinese vessels and blind their communications or traditional deterrence missions that use carriers and destroyers to steam around the world to show U.S. strength.

“Some of the moves I see in OSD-related force structure initiatives make our everyday conventional deterrence posture less effective,” said Bryan McGrath, the managing director of the FerryBridge Group, referring to the Office of the Secretary of Defense. “The Navy spends 99.9 percent of its time deterring war, not fighting it.”

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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