A note to Rep. Luria: Our US Navy is doing fine

Lawrence Korb

As someone who spent 24 years in the Navy, I completely understand where Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va., who spent 20 years in the Navy, is coming from when she argues that the service is constrained by budgetary and bureaucratic limitations from developing a proper maritime strategy that defines and funds the Navy’s proper role.

But as someone who has been involved in defense budgetary and organizational issues, including about five years as an assistant secretary of defense, I believe she is mistaken when she argues that the Navy is facing unreasonable fiscal and bureaucratic constraints because of the power of the Joint Staff. In fact, the Navy is doing very well.

To understand why this is the case, when it comes to the budget, it is important to remember that no matter how much this nation spends on defense, it cannot buy perfect security. In formulating the annual defense budget, the administration and Congress must decide how much of the federal discretionary budget it is willing to allocate to the Pentagon. Since the Pentagon gets the lion’s share of the total federal discretionary budget, the president must decide how much he is willing to increase the federal deficit — which Adm. Mike Mullen, the last naval officer to serve as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called the greatest threat to our national security — and what other agencies need more funding.

For example, President Dwight D. Eisenhower was so concerned about the federal deficit that after funding all the mandatory and discretionary items, he gave the Pentagon the remainder. President Richard Nixon slashed defense spending to increase spending for such items as Amtrak, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

While President Ronald Reagan dramatically increased defense spending in his first term, he cut it by 10 percent in his second term because he accumulated more debt than all his predecessors combined. Ironically, this prevented the Navy from achieving its goal, which he supported in his first campaign, of 600 ships. Jim Webb, who was then secretary of the Navy and would go on to become a senator, was so upset at Reagan’s decision that he publicly criticized the president and was forced to resign.

In President Joe Biden’s fiscal 2022 defense budget request, the Pentagon overall and the Navy make out very well. The proposed level of $715 billion for the Pentagon is essentially the same amount that the outgoing Trump administration, which increased defense spending by $100 billion in its term, proposed to spend. Moreover, in real terms, the budget is higher than that of the Reagan administration, and more than that of China and Russia combined.

For FY22, the Navy budget accounts for about 30 percent of the overall budget — the same amount as the Air Force. The Army’s share, on the other hand, drops to 24 percent — its smallest in a decade.

Given the fact that the U.S. is withdrawing from the Middle East and turning its focus to competition with China, it is unsurprising that the share devoted to the naval and air forces is increasing while the Army share has dropped, even though the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who controls the Joint Staff, is an Army general. Unsurprisingly, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday argues that the FY22 budget request is aligned with the Navy’s future design plans and supports where the service can most effectively contribute to major joint force operations.

Similarly, giving power to the Joint Staff rather than the individual services occurred primarily because of the passage of the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986. It was enacted to fix security problems caused by inter-service rivalry, in which the Navy played a significant role.

For example, when the Navy developed its submarine-launched ballistic missiles in the late 1950s, it refused to coordinate the targets for its missions with the Air Force’s intercontinental ballistic missiles and bombers. Because the chairman did not at that time have the power to overrule the Navy, the personal intervention of Eisenhower was necessary to get them to work together. This eventually led to the creation of Strategic Air Command, whose leadership has rotated between the Air Force and the Navy.

After Vietnam, the Carter administration adopted an air-land battle strategy to give priority to those forces dealing with the Soviet threat in Europe. The Navy obviously was so concerned about the new strategy that gave priority to the Army and the Air Force that it launched a public program at the Navy War College called Sea Plan 2000 to make the case for providing more funding for the Navy. It formed the basis for Reagan’s endorsement of a 600-ship fleet in his 1980 campaign.

But what gave the real impetus for the passage of Goldwater-Nichols was the failed hostage rescue mission in Iran in 1980 and the deaths of 243 service personnel in Beirut in 1983. One of the reasons that the rescue mission failed was that three of the eight helicopters did not make it to the staging area. The helicopters were from the Marines, who were not used to flying long distances over land. The chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff had wanted to put Air Force helicopters on the carriers; but before Goldwater-Nichols, he did not have the authority to make the Navy do it.

In the early 1980s, my office worked with the joint chiefs to establish a unified transportation command. However, the Navy convinced the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee to pass a law that prohibited creating a unified transportation command. This law was finally revoked in 1986 as part of Goldwater-Nichols.

After the deaths of the 220 Marines, 18 sailors and three soldiers in Beirut, an independent commission concluded there was confusion on the purpose of the mission. Rep. Bill Nichols, R-Ala., told me this was the reason he worked with Sen. Barry Goldwater, R-Ariz., on the bill.

Rep. Luria is also concerned that U.S. Pacific Command does not represent the Navy’s interests and has not yet been consulted by Biden. However, it has always been headed by an admiral, while most of the other combatant commands rotate among the services. On the other hand, the Navy has commanded our NATO forces, which are primarily composed of Army and Air Force personnel. Moreover, Biden did not talk to the head of Strategic Air Command before extending the New START nuclear pact with Russia.

By any objective or historical measure, the Navy is doing very well. Now our civilian and military leaders must do what is best for the country and the military, even if it means not giving the Navy, or the other services, everything that people like Rep. Luria, who dedicated so much of her life to the service, believe it needs.

Lawrence Korb is a senior fellow at American Progress and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University. He previously served as U.S. assistant secretary of defense for manpower, reserve affairs, installations and logistics.

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