The United States is a global hegemon – our economic, political, and military power is unparalleled. However, the latter will not be the case for long. China continues to aggressively expand its economic and military influence in the Pacific region. This aggressive military expansion frequently violates international norms and often violates the sovereignty of other Asian nations. And, while this aggression has largely taken the form of economic malfeasance, corrupt political engineering, and a willingness to extort, it may soon take a kinetic form.
Recently, the House Armed Services Committee held a hearing on the role of the Department of Defense (DoD) in competing with China. We heard from several witnesses about how China is ramping up its ship construction.
Rear Admiral Michael McDevitt (ret.) explained in his testimony that the Chinese Navy, by 2035, is projected to consist of approximately 420 ships. For reference, the United States has only 293 ships, with the goal of reaching 355 ships. Just recently, China commissioned its second aircraft carrier, the Shandong, allegedly capable of handling 36 fighter jets. On the subject of carriers, in January they commissioned their first Type 055 Renhai-class destroyer that is expected to accompany aircraft carriers as a battle group. On top of this, they are increasing their fleets of large landing ships, amphibious transport docks, and the development of a new large amphibious vessels that emphasizes aviation operations.
The bottom line is that China is investing monumental amounts in its naval force – further indicating that we have entered into a full-scale strategic competition. These build-ups and expansions have the potential to challenge U.S. maritime leadership in critical parts of the world. A bigger Navy would help advance our interests in this emerging maritime security environment. Although U.S. ships remain far superior to their Chinese counterparts, in a conflict, numbers and geography may help China mitigate some of the U.S. and its partners’ advantages.
We have passed into law a goal to reach a 355-ship Navy, and in order to get there, we must strategically invest in rebuilding our fleet. We have a strong shipbuilding industrial base that has demonstrated it can support a greater production capacity, better maintenance and can help extend the service lives of current ships. On top of this, we cannot deal with this threat the same way we dealt with the Soviet Union—by spending them into the ground. We must make our dollar work harder than their yuan. In Congress, creating authorizations that allow for multiyear and block buy contracts can save taxpayer dollars.
In addition to spending the U.S. dollar smarter, we must also spend it more strategically. To this end, we should give serious consideration to pivoting away from the current spending formula – one third of the budget to each service department. Afterall, if we are really serious about shifting to address Great Power Competition, doesn’t it make sense that given the theater we plan on operating in, we focus a larger share of our resources towards the services that will be doing the heavy lifting in this potential conflict?
If Congress intends to fulfill its constitutional obligation to provide for a national defense, then we must address this shortfall in our commitment to shipbuilding and ship maintenance. As the ranking member of the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee, I am working every day with my colleagues to ensure we are building and maintaining the right ships so that we can maintain our maritime dominance and continue to keep order on the seas. Now is not the time to pull back – the United States must continue investing in a strong, 355-ship Navy; our standing on the world stage depends on it.
Wittman represents Virginia’s 1st District and is ranking member of the Armed Services Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee.