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‘The Most Pressing Defense Policy Problem for the United States’
Why the U.S. Navy needs to be rebuilt—and how it can be.
[On the September 8, 2023 edition of The Bulwark’s “Beg to Differ” podcast, guest Kori Schake, the director of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, spoke with host Mona Charen and panelist William Galston about U.S. naval readiness.]
William Galston: I keep on reading reports and listening to congressional testimony that sounds credible to me to the effect that at precisely the time when we need to be moving forward on new naval strategies in the Asia-Pacific in particular, and innovative ways of implementing defense strategies, that we’re actually moving backwards, and that planning for the Navy is—for a variety of conceptual and also narrowly political reasons—very much stuck in the status quo. That our prospects for rebuilding the Navy under these circumstances are not bright, [and] our prospects for our underseas fleet reaching anything like the levels laid out as minimum requirements are not bright.
Am I pushing the panic button here or is there a real problem?
Kori Schake: You are exactly right that this is the most pressing defense policy problem for the United States.
You know, Asia is a maritime theater. And a couple of things conspired to produce the disgraceful failure of intellectual leadership we have in the uniform Navy, and the underfunding of the fleet that has produced a navy much too small for the demands of the strategy.
On the first part, the collapse of professionalism in the Navy. You know, there was a major corruption scandal, we call it the ‘Fat Leonard’ scandal—bribery of Navy officials in the Pacific Fleet. And the Navy, to their credit, court-martialed and cashiered the officers involved, or at least many of the officers involved, but that did also do some pretty serious damage to the pipeline of expertise in naval leadership.
The second thing is the Biden national security strategy, and in particular, the defense part of it, [the] $1.2 trillion a year sticker price that they have proposed to budget at the level of $750 billion. Congress keeps adding to that, but not adding enough to rebuild the Navy.
And Congress has also permitted the corrosion of the defense industrial base. In 1990, there were 54 major defense contractors in the United States. There are now five. And so, in order to build the number of submarines, for example, that we have committed to, to provide to Australia and to ourselves, you can’t do it on the timeline without dramatically expanding the industrial base. And businesses are not going to do that unless they have commitments that are more than year-to-year, which is how both administrations and Congress have played chicken on these things.
So, what is required to fix this is a serious increase in defense spending and multi-year contracts that will produce a navy adequate to execute the strategy. And the Biden administration, because they’re in power now—they’re not the first people to have done this badly, but they’re responsible for it now. And they are buying an enormous chasm between the strategy they say we can execute and what the Navy in particular can actually produce in the Pacific. So you are hitting the panic button and you’re exactly right to do so.
Mona Charen: That’s so, so interesting. I mean, just one more example of the harm that comes to a country that chooses to govern itself by continuing resolutions and stopgap spending bills and government shutdowns.
Schake: Exactly right.