President-elect Donald Trump wants to launch the biggest build-up of the US Navy in 30 years. And if he gets his way, Americans will pay for it with massive federal debt and deep cuts to social programs.
The Navy today possesses 282 large, front-line warships. That's more, by far, than any other country on Earth. In terms of raw ship numbers, however, the fleet is smaller than it's been in around a hundred years, although today's ships are, on average, much bigger—and of course more technologically sophisticated—than ever before.
A bigger Navy has long been a bipartisan project. Where Republicans and Democrats have differed is on how much and how fast the fleet should grow.
Trump wants to boost the fleet by a quarter, and potentially fast. "My plan will build the 350-ship Navy we need," Trump said in a speech on October 21. "This will be the largest effort at rebuilding our military since Ronald Reagan, and it will require a truly national effort."
He wasn't kidding that the expansion could be hard.
But the controversial president-elect, who lost the popular vote and currently has the lowest approval rating of any incoming president in a generation, did not say how—or how quickly—his administration would expand the fleet.
Any way you cut it, the expansion will be expensive. As in, no less than $120 billion.
There are lots of different kinds of ships in the Navy—submarines, destroyers, aircraft carriers, amphibious transports, and others. They vary in size, cost and capability. But on average, a new warship costs US taxpayers no less than $2 billion to build and tens of millions of dollars per year to crew and operate, per a Congressional Research Service estimate of the $4 billion cost of adding two ships per year.
Under President Barack Obama, the Navy was already working to boost the fleet—albeit more modestly than Trump says he wants to. The Navy's most recent 30-year shipbuilding plan projects the Navy expanding to 308 ships by 2021. If Trump wants to replace old vessels as they age out and expand the fleet to 350 ships by the end of his first term in early 2021, he'll have to build nearly 30 vessels per year, on average—around triple the recent average construction rate.
"Using current procurement costs for Navy ships, procuring these additional … ships might require an average of roughly $3.5 billion to $4 billion per year," Ronald O'Rourke, an analyst with the Congressional Research Service, explained in a November 9 report.
That's just the construction bill and doesn't count the cost of crewing, fueling, arming, and repairing the extra vessels. Moreover, the naval buildup would have to take place against the backdrop of Trump's planned massive tax cut for the rich and the economically destabilizing trade wars that Trump has also championed.
In December 2015, the nonprofit Tax Policy Center estimated that Trump's tax "reforms" would reduce federal revenues by at least $9.5 trillion over the first decade and could nearly double the national debt.
At the same time, the Republican-led Congress wants to make major changes to Medicare, among other programs, starting in 2017. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, House Majority leader Paul Ryan's healthcare plan, which largely privatizes Medicare, would cut government health spending by $130 billion over 10 years, mostly at the expense of American seniors.
In theory, the cuts to Medicare could "pay" for building, though not crewing or operating, the larger fleet. Such a tradeoff is likely to be highly unpopular. That could apply strong downward pressure on Trump's shipbuilding plan, forcing it closer to the existing bipartisan mean.
Still, the 350-ship fleet is theoretically possible—especially if Trump resorts to a slow buildup that occurs over several presidential administrations.
"I think the US industrial capacity would prove up to the task, especially if these proposals to increase the size of the Navy turn into a serious long-term effort versus a brief bump in the budget," Eric Wertheim, an independent naval expert and author of Warships of the World, told Motherboard.
A bigger Navy could include many more submarines or a much larger force of missile-armed destroyers, or even a bigger contingent of huge, nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. Exactly what kinds of ships Trump builds could depend on who the president-elect chooses as his Secretary of the Navy.
One clear frontrunner is Virginia Congressman Randy Forbes, who lost his primary campaign in early 2016 and will leave the House of Representatives in January 2017. Forbes is a widely-respected seapower advocate and a strong proponent of a bigger fleet.
"Without a strong Navy underpinning American grand strategy, the very basis for a conservative agenda—the protection of liberty, robust economic growth, and strong support for free trade—would become untenable," Forbes wrote in 2013. "With 80 percent of global trade traveling by sea," he added, "the strength of the American economy is directly linked with the Navy's ability to keep the world's sea lanes open and secure."
Ironically, if Forbes does end up overseeing a huge, expensive naval expansion as the new Navy secretary, he will do so for a commander-in-chief who opposes free trade and whose supporters have rejected many Americans' civil liberties.
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