Give the U.S. Navy the Army’s Money

To meet challenges from China, the rule of thirds must be broken.

By Blake Herzinger, a civilian Indo-Pacific defense policy specialist and U.S. Navy Reserve officer.
U.S. sailors look on as they stand aboard the U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Winston S. Churchill while it anchors in Port Sudan on March 1.
U.S. sailors look on as they stand aboard the U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Winston S. Churchill while it anchors in Port Sudan on March 1. AFP via Getty Images

Since 2001, the United States has spent nearly $2 trillion trying to reform the graveyard of empires, Afghanistan, into a rose garden of democracy, and now it’s leaving. Even after major U.S. combat operations concluded, the United States spent around $45 billion annually to maintain its training, advising, and special operations footprint in the country. But now the name of the game is great-power competition—and Americans need to have a serious discussion about the defense budget.

The United States relies primarily on sea-based commerce, as well as maritime resources like oil, rare-earth metals, and seafood, which means its need a navy. Unfortunately, the U.S. Navy has been ground into a shadow of its former self through two decades of unsustainable deployments. For years, the defense budget has roughly been partitioned into thirds, but those days must end if there is any intention of conventional deterrence facing down America’s main challenger, China.

This is going to require a serious paradigm shift for the U.S. Army. A common joke in the military services is that “joint”—meaning multiservice operations and goals—is spelled “A-R-M-Y.” The defense world has effectively revolved around the two land wars in Asia (one of the classic blunders) for 20 years. The Army has shouldered the majority of that load, but that has led to an environment where many within the Army only understand the Navy as the organization that brings them food and spare parts, with the occasional bombing sortie or offshore cruise missile barrage. The Navy’s role in guarding the world’s sea lines of communication—and, in times of conflict, driving the enemies’ fleets from the seas—is wholly unfamiliar to a generation that has seen U.S. forces myopically engaged in grinding counterinsurgencies and wars of choice far from the public eye.

In his recent book, To Provide and Maintain a Navy, Jerry Hendrix notes that drops in annual defense budgets have disproportionately affected the U.S. Navy’s ability to execute its congressionally mandated tasks without any commensurate reduction in operational tasking. The Navy decommissioned 200 ships in the seven years following the end of the Cold War, ending 1996 with 375 ships at the pier. That number had shrunk to under 300 by 2003 and came to rest at a low of 271 in 2015.

Distractions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the corresponding firehose of funding to Army-centric objectives, meant that U.S. shipbuilding efforts could not keep up with the rate at which ships built during the Reagan era were being decommissioned. This was then compounded by disastrous leadership at the top of the Defense Department and the Navy that brought about three consecutively botched shipbuilding efforts that sought to mitigate smaller numbers with technological transformation: the Littoral Combat Ship, the Ford-class aircraft carrier, and the Zumwalt-class guided-missile destroyer. The Navy today is barely above that low point of 271 ships, while China commissions new ships so rapidly that the process is referred to by Chinese sources as “dropping dumplings into the broth.”

It is time for the bloodletting foretold in 2020 by Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley. A career Army officer, Milley articulated what many on the Navy’s bench have been shouting into the void for 20 years: “The defense of the United States depends on air power and sea power primarily. People can say what they want and argue what they want, but that’s a reality.” The free sea is the lifeblood of the United States and has been for more than two centuries.

Milley’s remarks made clear that he expected a reprioritization of funding among the services and that the Navy and Air Force should be at the top of the pile. To be successful, this process must be bold and involve actual choices, not simply rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic by reallocating single-digit percentages. A navy takes years to develop, and the United States is already frighteningly behind in making these hard choices.

Without going too far into the esoteric world of the defense budget, the Army receives approximately 40 percent more funding than the Navy for its personnel costs and only slightly less for operations and maintenance ($57 billion to the Navy’s $60 billion). In terms of acquisitions, the Navy receives far more, but the ships being built must also serve Army requirements. They provide support for the Army’s mobility as well as its sustainment.

The Navy maintains enormous ships that would transport approximately 90 percent of the Army’s required equipment to the theater of battle in a major contingency. But even this fleet of sealift vessels is rapidly becoming obsolete. By the end of this decade, many of the ships the Navy would rely on for this crucial role would be nearly 50 years old. The crisis has become so acute at this point that the ships’ engines are so old that only a quickly shrinking cadre of mechanics even know how to operate them. These facts alone should convince Army decision-makers of the need for investment in sea power. Beyond that, it is just the nature of the services that the Navy requires ships, ships cost money, and the Navy needs a lot more ships. As the war in Afghanistan concludes, billions of dollars in funding need to be turned toward clearing the maintenance backlog of the U.S. fleet and invested in new ships and submarines.

Any description of the naval threat posed by China sounds like hyperbole: thousands of modern cruise and ballistic missiles, including a specific program designed to blow big flaming holes in aircraft carriers; an inventory of tens of thousands of sea mines; a navy battle fleet that exceeds the U.S. fleet by 60 ships but a total maritime force of more than 700 when accounting for its coast guard and maritime militia. On balance, most U.S. ships are assessed to be of higher quality than their opposite numbers, but numbers will matter when missiles start to fly.

Those mines, which would hobble any large-scale Army assault, are met by only 11 1980s-era U.S. minesweepers, which have already been identified for removal from service. The creaky U.S. sealift fleet and its vulnerable oilers, first targets at the outbreak of hostilities for their irreplaceable role in keeping the battle fleet at sea, are already too few in number. Without a larger fleet, American soldiers will die along with sailors, caught in vast minefields and targeted by waves of missiles more numerous than existing ships can counter, long before reaching any intended field of battle. To place it in perspective, with only one successful ballistic missile attack that sinks an aircraft carrier, China would kill twice as many Americans than were killed during the duration of the war in Afghanistan.

Much as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were largely ground-centric efforts led (rightly) by the Army, the challenges faced by the United States now and for the foreseeable future are maritime. If the United States and China go to war, it will play out in the vast oceans of the region, not on Chinese shores. Those who demand upgraded tanks for a World War II-redux, island-hopping campaign would be well reminded that the United States is still dominant between its own shores and the first island chain that surrounds China.

There is little likelihood that Beijing could muster or sustain the forces required to invade the Pacific Islands à la imperial Japan in the 1940s. And it might also be revelatory for those who tout the Army’s role in amphibious warfare to note that the U.S. Marine Corps, which is actually the service responsible for amphibious warfare, has elected to divest itself of its tank force in favor of capabilities suited to the character of contemporary maritime warfare. Much as funding was unevenly prioritized for the Army’s needs in the 2000s, so must it be now for the Navy.

A considerable amount of the Army’s 2000s-era funding surge came from the Overseas Contingency Operations fund—a supplemental appropriation designed to augment the defense budget for war-related activities that essentially ended up as a slush fund for circumventing the 2011 Budget Control Act—not the base budget that goes through the normal authorization and appropriation process and the services’ enduring requirements. It also seems unlikely that U.S. defense budgets, as a percentage of GDP, will rise appreciably in the near future. That means that the real prioritization knife fight will likely take place within the base budget top line.

Put plainly, to achieve the required investment in the Navy, the Army will either need to forgo many of its modernization aims or become considerably smaller. Modernization of some key Army platforms, like the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, have been afflicted with program mismanagement and malfeasance in the same vein as those that delivered the Littoral Combat Ship to the Navy. The Army’s Future Combat System program cost American taxpayers $18 billion and produced nothing; at those rates, the Navy could purchase at least 15 hulls of its newest frigate design. In terms of manpower savings, with careful planning the Army could tighten its belt by sending identified capabilities to the reserve. But any savings at the Army’s expense places increased onus on the Navy to actually deliver. Navy leaders should understand their tenuous position as stewards of these proposed billions of dollars. The service’s track record over the past two decades has done little to inspire confidence in its abilities to acquire ships that actually work, arrive on time, and don’t blow past their planned budgets.

There are certainly legitimate requirements for modernizing the Army. But today’s Army is adequate to address the immediate security needs of the nation. The Navy is not.

Many naval advocates would point to the U.S. Constitution, which outlines Congress’s responsibility to raise an army when required but to provide and maintain a navy at all times. It is no less true in 2021 than it was in 1787 that a navy takes time and long-term, sustained investment. Infantry soldiers can be trained to a reasonable standard in the space of months, but the timeline for ships is far longer. A nation cannot start building a navy at the outbreak of hostilities and expect to prevail. For a maritime nation like the United States, which relied on the oceans to reach its perch at the top of the global order, a navy is nonnegotiable. U.S. shipyards built thousands of ships during World War II but avoided complete catastrophe in 1941 because a concerted shipbuilding campaign had begun five years before. Those shipyards are long gone, the U.S. commercial shipbuilding industry as dead as its military shipbuilding program.

The Navy’s need for a greater share of the defense budget will certainly be criticized as interservice rivalry or parochialism. But in terms of any contingency related to a rising China seeking to displace the order of the free world, there are no realistic options without a strong, revitalized Navy. To have all the modern tanks in the world surrounded by soldiers with augmented reality helmets stuck on U.S. shores or sunk hundreds of miles from land is not a winning scenario.

Active and retired naval strategists are increasingly fervent in their calls for recapitalization of the fleet—not to score points in some imagined interservice rivalry but because they know that if called on, the force may not merely be bloodied but may fail. Not for want of sailors or fighting spirit but for a simple lack of large gray ships ready to go into harm’s way.

Blake Herzinger is a civilian Indo-Pacific defense policy specialist and U.S. Navy Reserve officer. The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not represent those of his civilian employer, the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government. Twitter: @BDHerzinger