The president will address a joint session of Congress Tuesday evening and argue for a $54 billion boost in defense spending. That represents a 10 percent jump and is a “top line” number with specifics to come, according at a White House news briefing Monday.
However, Trump has already proposed a dramatic expansion of the Navy fleet, which hits home in Hampton Roads. The Newport News shipyard is a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries, the nation’s largest military shipbuilder.
Trump will make comments from the aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford, according to company spokeswoman Christie Miller. The first-in-class ship, which represents the next generation of naval sea power, is scheduled to be delivered to the Navy this year after numerous delays.
The Navy fleet stands at about 275 ships with plans to reach 308. Trump has proposed a 350-ship fleet, while the Navy’s assessment calls for 355 ships. That will mean business for HII.
HII’s Newport News shipyard is the sole builder of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and one of two yards that makes nuclear-powered submarines, which are in high demand. Its Ingalls Shipbuilding division in Pascagoula, Miss., makes amphibious warships, guided-missile destroyers and Coast Guard cutters.
Trump’s $54 billion defense buildup would be offset by cuts to domestic programs and to foreign aid, the Los Angeles Times reported. Also, the U.S. would demand that other countries pay more for security alliances.
Politics aside, a presidential visit that puts Hampton Roads in the spotlight is “fabulous” news for the region, said Craig Quigley, executive director of the Hampton Roads Military and Federal Facilities Alliance.
“For the president to come down so early in his term, in order to fully appreciate the strategic importance of what Newport News Shipbuilding brings to the nation, is a huge deal,” he said.
The shipyard also represents a sector of the economy that Trump has talked about.
“The quality of the workforce there and the high-end technical skills that are required ... that’s the sort of stuff he’s talking about in restoring manufacturing in America,” he said.
Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Westmoreland, welcomed Trump’s visit in a statement released from his office. Wittman chairs the Armed Services Sea Power Panel, which gives him influence on shipbuilding.
“I am pleased President Trump is visiting Newport News shipyard so he can see first-hand the great work being done there and hear how important yards like the one at Newport News are to our Navy and to our national security,” Wittman said. “I support President Trump’s call to increase defense spending so we can rebuild our military and provide our men and women in uniform the resources they need to complete their mission and keep America safe.”
But even if Congress grants Trump the extra $54 billion, don’t expect to see a larger fleet overnight.
Building ships is a long-term business, and Wittman said the fleet will have to increase over time. He has requested that the Congressional Budget Office map out the costs of buildup over 15-, 20-, 25- and 30-year scenarios.
The current 30-year shipbuilding plan calls for a fleet of 308 ships, but even that faces fiscal challenges. The average annual cost of implementing that plan would be about $21 billion in 2016 dollars, CBO said this month. That’s one-third more than the average shipbuilding funding the Navy has received in recent decades.
Still, Trump’s visit on Thursday should be in marked contrast to former President Obama’s visit to Newport News nearly four years ago to the day.
In February 2013, Obama spoke about the need to stave off across-the-board budget cuts under a process known as sequestration. Those cuts went into effect, which threw a wrench into scheduled ship maintenance, resulting in delays and backlogs.
Trump wants to do away with sequestration’s effects on the defense budget, although Democrats say sequestration also hurts non-defense spending and must be addressed, too.
Lessig can be reached by phone at 757-247-7821.