More Ships Needed to Counter China, Russia

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Twenty years ago, China’s military influence did not extend more than a few hundred miles off the Chinese coast. Today, the situation has changed dramatically. China now has the world’s largest navy and is projecting its power across the Pacific, threatening the free flow of commerce and undermining the stability of its neighbors, like Taiwan. Meanwhile, to the north, the U.S. Coast Guard is losing influence in the Arctic Ocean to Russia, whose fleet of polar icebreakers outnumbers ours 40-2. Last summer, the Russian navy conducted a massive military exercise off the coast of Alaska – a sign that Moscow believes American strength and resolve are eroding.

These trends should come as a loud warning to the world’s largest trading economy and military superpower. America needs an armada of new ships to guarantee freedom of the seas and deter the possibility of war. Unfortunately, many House Democrats want to cut defense spending by 10 percent across the board, a decision that would put our military further behind China, Russia, and other adversaries. I am committed to preventing such a disastrous reduction of our national defense.

U.S. Fleet Needs Faster Growth

I have long pushed for a larger Navy and Coast Guard. My SHIPS Act, enacted in 2017, made it the policy of the United States to achieve a 355-ship Navy as soon as practicable. In addition, Congress approved a plan to replace the Coast Guard’s aging fleet of high-endurance cutters with 12 National Security Cutters. Nine of these ships have been completed, one is under construction, and another will begin construction soon, but Congress still needs to fund the 12th cutter. I was encouraged that Congress recently provided funds to build 10 new Navy battle force ships. Yet these assets alone will not close the capability gaps we face with China and Russia.

China has about 350 navy ships compared to the U.S. Navy’s 298 vessels, and experts predict China’s navy could be twice the size of our fleet by 2030. In addition, Russia has plans to construct a dozen new icebreakers over the next decade, building on their already-huge advantage in the polar regions. If we do not ramp up shipbuilding dramatically, it will be more and more difficult to prevent a future conflict with our adversaries.

Biden Should Embrace Recent Shipbuilding Plan

In December, the Defense Department put forward a bold shipbuilding plan that called for 405 manned Navy ships by 2051. The Biden Administration is now conducting its own review of the Navy’s needs but has not yet committed to the Pentagon’s 405-ship goal. I asked General Lloyd Austin about this directly during his confirmation hearing to be Secretary of Defense, but he would not commit to 405 manned ships. More recently, I had the opportunity to question General Glen VanHerck, who oversees maritime operations in the Arctic. He provided further confirmation that the Coast Guard and Navy do not have enough ships to meet their obligations.

I have continued to raise this issue with the new Administration. Recently I joined several of my colleagues in sending two letters to the Defense Secretary reiterating the urgent need for a larger fleet. We encouraged the Pentagon to purchase these vessels in multi-year contracts, known as “block buys,” to provide long-term certainty to our industrial base and mitigate cost overruns. I also wrote to President Biden urging him to offer strong support for the Coast Guard in his forthcoming budget proposal. I hope he will agree with our top military leaders that more ships are necessary to restore American superiority at sea.

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Submitted by Senator Roger Wicker.