There weren’t many issues that united the Republican field of presidential candidates in 2016, but America’s need for a larger and more capable Navy was one of them.
By 2016, the nation’s armada was less than half of its size under Ronald Reagan. The downsizing of the country’s naval capacities made sense when the “peace dividend” of the 1990s evolved into a campaign against non-state actors in the age of terrorism. But as the Obama administration began to shift its focus away from combatting terrorist actors to containing near-peer competitor nations abroad, America’s reduced ability to project sustained strength across oceans became a glaring national security risk. Most Republicans on 2016’s debate stages echoed Mitt Romney’s 2012 call for a 350-ship fleet. In a period of intense intra-party friction, the GOP was united behind the need for a bigger, better Navy.
When Trump took office, his budgets reflected a desire to eventually meet that 350-ship goal. But this aspirational objective was not reflected in congressional appropriations, and the Navy has been compelled to pare back the president’s expectations. Not good enough, the White House averred. As recently as last December, the Office of Management and Budget directed the Navy to get back to augmenting the fleet with renewed vigor. You could be forgiven for thinking that an enlarged Navy was an objective of paramount importance to the Trump administration. But you would be wrong.
It turns out there is another far more pressing national-security priority to which the Navy must take a back seat: Trump’s border wall.
On Thursday, Congress was informed of the Trump administration’s decision to reallocate another $3.8 billion from the Pentagon’s budget (for a total of $7.2 billion), much of which will be diverted away from two programs that fund shipbuilding and aircraft procurement for the Navy and Marine Corps. Those funds would be provided instead to the Department of Homeland Security to continue the construction of the president’s signature campaign-trail promise.
The Navy is being asked to sacrifice two F-35B Joint Strike Fighters, two V-22 Ospreys, and one P-8 Poseidon anti-submarine warfare aircraft. The shipbuilding account will lose nearly $900 million dedicated to amphibious assault ships and fast transports. This is the second bite Trump’s wall has taken out of the Navy’s budget. Last September, the president decreed that the tens of millions of dollars Congress had allocated to the construction of a new ship maintenance facility, a hazardous materials warehouse, and submarine pier and maintenance dock would be redirected toward the Southern border.
This isn’t sitting well with at least one congressional Republican: House Armed Services Committee ranking member Mac Thornberry. “The re-programming announced today is contrary to Congress’s constitutional authority, and I believe that it requires Congress to take action,” he said in a statement. “Congress has the constitutional responsibility to determine how defense dollars are spent.” Thornberry’s dissent is notable, but this display of courage is also likely a function of his impending retirement from Congress. He was not among the paltry 13 House Republicans who opposed the president’s declaration of a national emergency at the border, which provided Trump with the authority he’s using to override the legislature.
At the border, the new powers with which the president has been endowed are primarily being used to replace existing barriers with a “system” of obstacles and technologies designed to deter pedestrian and vehicular traffic at known crossing points. The administration has constructed only about 110 miles of new fencing along the border. And although the administration expects another 450 miles of new construction along the border to be completed by the beginning of 2021, that goal may be hard to meet. Officials with the Department of Homeland Security have tried to manage expectations, insisting that they plan on having those new miles of border barrier either completed or “under construction.”