As its term winds down, Trump’s White House plots a major naval expansion

David Larter
·11 min read

BATH, Maine — Sitting inside a restaurant just yards from Bath Iron Works shipyard on a blustery October day, President Donald Trump’s top national security aide has two things on his mind: pizza, and Chinese naval expansion in the Western Pacific.

One solves a short-term problem. The other is a long-term menace.

National security adviser Robert O’Brien, the California-based attorney who was brought in to replace John Bolton, was in Maine to visit Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, which maintains submarines, and Bath Iron Works, the lead shipbuilder for the U.S. Navy’s mighty Arleigh Burke-class destroyer and three Zumwalt-class stealth destroyers.

The week following his trip to Maine, O’Brien visited Fincantieri’s Marinette Marine shipyard, where the new generation of guided-missile frigates, the Constellation class, is set to be built over the next decade.

Government ethics watchdogs are raising questions about whether the national security adviser should be on the stump in key states just weeks before an election. In Maine, for example, Republican Sen. Susan Collins is in a tight race that could decide the balance of power in the legislative body.

But officials who spoke to Defense News said O’Brien’s trips were more than just electioneering: They’re part of a high-level push inside the Trump administration to prepare for a major expansion of the U.S. fleet, beginning in earnest with the rollout of the 2022 budget and into a potential second Trump term. A major buildup could deepen the naval arms race in the Western Pacific and potentially reorder the Defense Department’s budget for years to come.

In the past month, O’Brien, as well as Office of Management and Budget Director Russ Vought and senior economic adviser Peter Navarro, have publicly and quietly made trips to shipbuilding and ship repair facilities, including Huntington Ingalls' yards in Pascagoula and Newport News; General Dynamics' yards in San Diego as well as Bath Iron Works in Maine and Electric Boat in Connecticut.

The emphasis comes amid Trump’s increasing focus on withdrawing troops from Afghanistan and other so-called forever wars. At the same time, the rhetoric from his national security and economic teams has increasingly focused on shipbuilding and growing the Navy.

In interviews, more than half a dozen senior White House officials and aides described to Defense News an emerging maritime strategy that combines pulling back from long conflicts on land with growing the fleet. The new direction is viewed as a way to directly counter Chinese expansion while adding more industrial jobs to the economy. But analysts, who see little potential for defense spending increases in the wake of a staggering coronavirus-relief spending binge, say such a plan would cost tens of billions of dollars and could necessitate big cuts to other armed services.

To the president’s national security adviser, however, continuing to spend money on long-running counterterrorism conflicts in the face of a rising Chinese maritime threat is foolhardy.

“We’re outside of a shipyard right now,” O’Brien said in between bites of cheese pizza. "We’re not building enough ships to deal with the Chinese threat. At the same time, we’re spending $3 billion a month in Afghanistan or somewhere near that. It’s $3 billion a month when we could be building three frigates a month — that’s 36 frigates in the year.

“You know who loves the fact that we’re Afghanistan? China. China loves the fact that we’re in Afghanistan. You know who loves the fact that we’re in Afghanistan? Russia. Iran loves the fact that we’re in Afghanistan. We’re putting resources into Afghanistan that would otherwise be devoted to great power competition and protecting American people.”

Politico also participated in the interview with O’Brien.

‘A strong Navy above all else’

To O’Brien, the situation is simple: The United States has oceans on either side and has interests all over the world. The way to stay relevant on the international stage as the U.S. draws down on its long-running Middle East conflicts is through the Navy.

“We want a strong Navy above all else to protect the country but also to project power,” O’Brien said. "We are a trading people. We invest all over the world, we trade all over the world, we travel the world as Americans, we have financial interests all over the world where Americans need to be protected.

“When you have an aircraft carrier, you’ve got a lot of sovereign territory and you don’t have to ask basing rights. If you’ve got a surface fleet, you can [fight] piracy, project American power, protect freedom of navigation. You protect the sea lanes of communication. If you’ve got a strong submarine fleet, as we do, you can prevent countries from engaging amphibious attacks on their neighbors. So there’s a lot the Navy can do. It’s a very important instrument of national power.”

For O’Brien, the decline of the Navy’s capacity since the Cold War — which saw the fleet shrink from fewer than 600 ships to today’s fleet of just about 300 capable ships — combined with budget cuts during the mid-2010s have hurt the readiness of the Navy and the United States.

But furthermore, the rise of China as an economic and maritime giant also necessitates drastic measures to expand the fleet, he argues.

“With sequestration and the lack of attention to maritime power and America’s Navy over the years, we became a weaker country as a result, and the president wants to fix that,” O’Brien said. “But look, we’re also confronted by a major maritime country: China has gone from being kind of your typical land power country to becoming both a land power and a sea power country. We’re going to face unique challenges we’ve never seen before.”

Reordering the defense budget?

A potentially fatal flaw in any naval buildup is its massive expense. In a speech this week, O’Brien called for as many as four of the Navy’s new Constellation-class frigates in development to be built per year, which should cost anywhere from $900 million to $1.2 billion per ship.

Furthermore, Defense Secretary Mark Esper has said it is urgent for the Navy to begin building three Virginia-class submarines per year.

A buying profile that included nothing but four frigates and three Virginia-class attack submarines, in addition to a Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine, which the Navy plans to buy at a rate of one per year starting in 2026, would run the Navy’s shipbuilding budget to no less than $21 billion per year. For context, the Navy requested $19.9 billion for this fiscal year’s shipbuilding budget.

But that plan would not include any of the support ships, unmanned surface and subsurface vessels, destroyers and new classes of amphibious ships the Defense Department says it needs to challenge China’s massive naval expansion.

Budget experts have called into question whether such an expansion would be possible without either large budget increases or slashing the budgets of other services. And with most experts predicting flat defense budgets for the foreseeable future, the only real option would be to cut one, two or all three of the other service’s budgets.

“I mean, anything’s possible with deficit spending,” quipped Todd Harrison, a budget expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. In his view, pulling off a major naval expansion is possible one of three ways:

“If you’re serious about a massive increase in the size of the Navy, one approach is you could try to do it in a zero-sum way where you cut the other services and use their funding,” Harrison explained. "That would mean the Navy would just get a dramatically larger share of the budget, and you would have to sustain that for more than a decade. That seems highly unlikely that you’ll be able to sustain it politically for a long time.

"The other way, and the way that [President Ronald] Reagan did it, is a non-zero-sum shift in the budget where the overall budget grows but the Navy gets a disproportionate share of the increase. The Air Force was actually growing faster than the Navy in the Reagan era, but the Army was pretty much flat during the Reagan buildup.

“And then a third way is you keep putting this target out there in the future and you don’t ever actually fund to reach the target. You use it more as a talking point or as a vision statement rather than an actual objective.”

That means that if budgets remain flat and the administration wants to build up the Navy, it will have little choice but to find the savings in the other services, extract big defense hikes from a potentially Democrat-controlled Congress, or have its massive Navy remain a less tangible thing in the physical world, instead living on rhetorically.

A Biden buildup?

Any plans the Trump administration has for a large naval buildup beyond the 2022 budget submission would be contingent upon winning the presidential race next week. Biden has not called for major cuts to the Defense Department, but neither has he indicated he’s inclined toward a pivot to a maritime-dominated strategy.

What he has discussed is investments in unmanned technology and communications advantages that underpin Esper’s Battle Force 2045 approach for the Navy, which the White House has yet to embrace. Esper called for a major expansion of the fleet to more than 500 vessels that is weighted heavily toward smaller ships, fewer aircraft carriers, more logistics, and lots of unmanned surface and subsurface vessels.

The idea behind such a fleet is to match China’s expansion without substantially increasing the ownership cost of the fleet — a prospect that some experts question.

In a 2017 analysis, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that about 25 percent of the total cost of owning a ship comes from procurement. This means that for every $1 spent on shipbuilding, $3 is spent on operations and sustainment over the ship’s hull life.

What appears to be coming together with a potential Biden victory is a compromise on defense where there isn’t a major boost to the budget, but it remains flat or flat-plus-inflation, said Bryan Clark, a retired submarine officer and senior fellow at The Hudson Institute. He led one of the studies that fed into Esper’s Battle Force 2045 fleet.

That probably means that a future Biden administration probably would not see the overall shipbuilding budget increase to the 12-13 percent of the Navy’s budget that Esper projected it would need to add dozens of new hulls, Clark said. The reason? Operations and maintenance costs will eat the budget alive — costs that only grow as you add ships.

“Ensuring that we can pay for the operation and support of the fleet means we’re going to have to constrain shipbuilding and other procurement to what’s reasonable, and also avoid building a fleet we can’t afford in the future," Clark said. “I think shipbuilding staying at about where it is, growing with inflation, that is what we should be looking for.

“And I think that’s the right answer. Even if we had more money, I would argue that it might be better spent ensuring that we’ve got the operations and sustainment costs covered. And we need to make sure we have the enablers covered, meaning munitions, inventories, command, control and network capabilities, etc. We’re at the point where we need to ensure that additional money is going towards capabilities that make the fleet effective rather than just growing the fleet in absolute terms.”

But for O’Brien and the members of the Trump administration pushing to substantially grow the fleet, the challenge posed by China to the United States on the high seas is the defining challenge of the coming decades.

While some have remarked that it’s odd for a national security adviser to be so involved in the nitty-gritty of shipbuilding — on his trip to Portsmouth, he forwarded a plan to make a major ship alteration to the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer to accommodate hypersonic missiles — O’Brien sees the question as well within his remit.

“I don’t think there’s anything [that] falls more firmly within the role of the national security adviser than making sure we have the proper platforms and the proper mix of platforms to protect this country,” he said. "The United States is a maritime power. We have been since [the] foundation of our republic, and we won the Cold War in large part because Ronald Reagan built a 600-ship Navy.

“We’re now facing a generational crisis with [China] and its rising Navy. And so we need to be prepared to defend our allies and deter our adversaries. To do so, we need to build the 355-ship Navy the president promised the American people when he took office.”