Monday, February 10, 2020

OSD's Budget: off phase, off course, off freq - off mission

The only consolation for navalists this Monday is knowing that one of the great bi-partisan traditions of Congress is to ignore budget proposals coming from the executive branch. Besides that, I don’t care how hard you try to spin it, this is horrible news.
Despite expected cuts to shipbuilding programs in the fiscal year 2021 budget request, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper is committed to a bigger, but much lighter, naval force, he said in an exclusive interview with Defense News.

In the wake of reports that the Navy may cut shipbuilding in its upcoming budget request, Esper said he is “fully committed” to building a fleet of 355 ships or larger.
In addition to the reported cut of a Virginia-class submarine out of the FY21 budget, it is expected that other cuts may be coming in the short term for the Navy.
No. Not buying it. There isn't enough time to create more from less. This is about something, but building a fleet prepared to fight across the Pacific and stay in the fight once in WESTPAC? No, it isn't about that.

If you ever wanted a “breaking news” Midrats, yesterday we opened our show – and did most of it on – the early reports from Aaron & David from Defense News quoting the broad outlines of SECDEF Esper’s budget proposals. In spite of Congress doing what Congress wants to do anyway, these proposals have an impact and cannot be wished away.

After sleeping on it overnight, my take has changed a bit from yesterday’s Midrats and grown darker. Let me set things up a bit. This is rather simple, as is the solution.

Candidate Trump was a supporter of a larger Navy, a 355 (nee 350) ship Navy. To almost everyone’s surprise, mine included, he won in November 2016.

By December 2016, the Navy responded with a plan for 355 ships.

It is February 2020 and Trump’s SECDEF put forth a proposal to decrease the shipbuilding budget with a promise to have, inside a decade, a fleet of unicorn powered ships produced by Shangri-La shipyards to get to 355 by 2030.

I am willing to be sold otherwise, but what we appear to have is a SECDEF that is not aligned with the CINC’s priorites. Indeed, he is headed in the opposite direction.

The cynical might say that this is about what you would expect from a West Point graduate as SECDEF paired with an Army General as CJCS, backed up by OSD staff that has grown intellectually hidebound and entitled after two decades of ground wars in Asia, but there must be a more charitable explanation out there, I am sure.

As CINC, Trump has just a few options.

1. He can do and say nothing. By doing so, he signals that a desire for a larger Navy was simply election year babble – fried air for the rubes. It really isn’t a priority and he doesn’t really care.

2. He was serious, and thought he had a loyal team supporting his priorities. It appears, again, that perhaps he does not have his people where he needs them, still, in DOD. As such, he should simply go to an area of expertise he had prior to becoming CINC; fire people.

If he takes #1, then he deserves any election year blowback he may get.

If he takes #2, then he sends a clear signal that when you join Team Trump, then you support the President’s campaign promises and agenda.

Yes, this administration is full of unfilled and “acting” senior positions – and from Spencer to Bolton and others – when people not on your team leave they have a habit of shooting back at you over their shoulder, but if you are serious about growing the Navy, then this budget proposal should be taken for what it is; a rebuke from the standing OSD bureaucracy enabled by leaders who don’t support your priorities and/or are not in control of the bureaucracy they lead … in an election year.

This is a people, more than a process problem.

Regardless of where he goes, this is an unforced error, but it can be mitigated.

Where in the senior civilian leadership at DOD can Trump find someone who has a consistent record of trying to find a way to 355 and would clearly be receptive to the mandate to honestly work towards that goal – budget habits of the past be damned?

Acting SECNAV Modly.

He would be a bold choice for SECDEF – and more importantly – a clear choice that tells everyone that Trump is not frack’n around. He said 355, he meant 355, and he wants a budget to get us there.

I’m open to other options, but in such a short time frame and in an election year, I see no other choice in the ready locker.

For the record, I am rather saddened by this whole thing. I was and am impressed with Esper, and this was an opportunity for him to support his boss’s agenda and meet the WESTPAC challenge, but he failed on both counts.

Like “only Nixon could go to China,” in a way, only a West Point grad could tell Army it needed to adjust to future budget expectations.

A missed opportunity, but one that created a new opportunity if Trump wants to take it.

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