House Armed Services Committee members from both parties are pressing the Biden administration to build up the strength and size of the Navy.
Reps. Elaine Luria (D., Va.) and Rob Wittman (R., Va.) said that more funding and support is needed for America's fleet to counter China, which now touts the largest navy in the world. Wittman, the ranking member on the House Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces, said that confronting China at sea may be the difference between winning and losing an extended struggle with Beijing.
"The most important realm is what is going to happen on the sea," Wittman told the Washington Free Beacon. "If we're going to deter [China], we have to have the ships." To field a larger fleet, an increased or reorganized defense budget will be necessary, the members said.
Early plans from the Biden administration indicate a flat budget for the Pentagon in 2022, falling short of congressional hopes. Both Luria and House Republicans are asking the Biden administration to set a budget that grows at 3 to 5 percent per year to keep pace with inflation. Luria, a prominent Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, pressed the administration and Pentagon for more answers on how they will pursue their plans for the Navy.
"We have a lot of questions," Luria said in a Monday event at the Hudson Institute. "A lot more visibility needs to be put on the role the Navy plays in any conflict in the Pacific."
In the final year of the Trump administration, Pentagon officials and military planners developed naval development plans to compete against China's burgeoning fleet. In October, then-Secretary of Defense Mark Esper announced a naval buildup strategy called Battle Force 2045, which plans for a 500-ship fleet. The initiative called for the use of new technologies, such as unmanned vessels controlled by computer, in the built-up fleet.
Thus far, the Biden administration has taken a largely quiet approach to national defense, instituting a 60-day drawdown aimed at rooting out political extremism in the ranks and a reevaluation of forward troop deployments around the world. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin is traveling with President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken to east Asia this week. Austin, however, remains ambiguous on his own plans for naval buildup going forward.
Wittman said that while the administration has said many of the right things about China so far, he has yet to see much decisive action.
"I want to make sure that the administration takes a very strong stand against China," Wittman said. "To this point, that seems like the position that they will take, but it's another thing to operationalize that effort against China."
Former Trump administration officials have expressed concern that the Biden administration might abandon expansion plans even in the face of China's ambitious naval operations. Those officials warned that President Biden's ambitious domestic spending and deemphasis on defense against China do not leave much room for grand plans for the Navy.
The White House and the Pentagon did not respond to requests for comment.