President-elect Donald Trump has called for a 350-ship Navy, but the path to building the biggest fleet in nearly 20 years could be off to a rough start in 2017 because of the budget problems created by years of Washington's bickering over defense spending caps.

As soon as Trump takes office, he and his defense team will likely be handed a draft budget that cuts $17 billion from the Navy's five-year spending plan. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus in early December refused to cut that money from the budget, primarily based on concerns over shipbuilding and maintenance accounts, but the Office of the Secretary of Defense is likely to impose those cuts anyway.

President Trump and his likely Defense Secretary James Mattis will have to straighten that out in a hurry because the fiscal year 2018 Pentagon budget will be due on Capitol Hill by this spring. And before the Navy sees a big budget increase, Congress will have to figure out a way to get rid of the Budget Control Act and the defense spending caps known as sequestration.

Boosting the Navy's ship-building budget might not necessarily mean that good times are here to stay for all defense spending, said Todd Harrison, a budget expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. If Trump is focused on shipbuilding budgets as a way to spur job growth and strengthen the military long term, other places in the budget could still suffer.

"I think a lot of people assume that there will be more money, that the spigot is going to be all the way open," Harrison said. "But there are still going to have to be trade-offs and dollars spent on building ship will be dollars not going towards maintenance and training."

The Navy underwent a massive build up in the 1980s during the Reagan era, an effort that suggests that expanding the size of the surface fleet is not always good for sailors and Navy readiness, said Bryan Clark, a retired submarine officer who is now an analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

"In the early part of the 1980s, so much money was going into shipbuilding and reactivating old ships that the readiness of the actual fleet suffered," Clark said.

The eighties-era emphasis on ship building left ships undermanned and made finding spare parts for even simple fixes difficult, Clark said. It wasn't until the end of the 1980s and the arrival of the new ships that form the backbone of the current fleet — AEGIS cruisers and destroyers and Los Angeles-class attack boats — that the Navy really reaped the benefits of the Reagan buildup, Clark said.

But the Trump camp believes that more ships and more capabilities give the government more options in a crisis to deter conflicts and defeat enemies. To them, building up a fleet is matter of credibility on the world stage.

That’s what top Trump advisers told Navy Times' sister publication Defense News in October ahead of the election.

"I think at this point in history with the credibility of the president of the United States eroded, were they to suspect that the United States is abandoning its defense spending," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., in the interview. "It takes more than a speech to turn this around."

That will all have to begin almost as soon as Trump takes office January 20.

David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.

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