Their resistance set up a potential clash between the Navy and many of its traditional allies on Capitol Hill, especially some senior House lawmakers, who want to significantly boost purchases of ships next year to breathe life into the increasingly anemic U.S. shipbuilding industry.
"We're very concerned about the industrial base's limitations," Navy Secretary Donald Winter told reporters after testifying before the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. "The need and the availability of funding have got to get matched to the capacity of the industrial base."
The country's few remaining domestic shipbuilders have struggled through many lean financial years, during which investments in facilities and workers often were sub-par. Problems at some shipbuilding facilities, Winter added, were exacerbated by Hurricane Katrina, which ravaged the Gulf Coast in 2005 and particularly affected Northrop Grumman's Ingalls shipyard in Pascagoula, Miss.
But shipbuilding enthusiasts who have been clamoring for years for more Navy ship orders to turn the struggling sector around are likely to dismiss the Navy's claims that the industrial base cannot meet a sharp upturn in orders.
"You need to raise the shipbuilding rate and sustain a higher rate. We need to do that to rebuild the fleet, period," said Cynthia Brown, president of the American Shipbuilding Association. Continuing "very low rates of procurement," Brown added, will only keep the industry "fragile."
But Navy officials say the industry and the military still must take several steps -- including stabilizing the long-range shipbuilding plan and investing in the facilities and workforce -- before they can tackle more orders than already planned.
In its fiscal 2008 budget, the Navy proposed buying seven new ships for $14.4 billion -- $3.2 billion above fiscal 2007 figures.
"We are in an up-ramp," Chief of Naval Operations Michael Mullen said after the hearing. But they are not ramping up fast enough for some lawmakers.
House Armed Services Seapower and Expeditionary Forces Subcommittee Chairman Gene Taylor, D-Miss., and House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman John Murtha, D-Pa., are talking about adding five ships to the fiscal 2008 defense authorization and appropriations bills. Lawmakers are considering two more destroyers and may throw in advanced procurement money to buy a second Virginia-class submarine in 2010 -- two years earlier than the Navy planned to begin buying two subs a year.
Adding the submarine money, in particular, would be "very destabilizing," Mullen said, because it would commit the Navy to additional submarine funding in fiscal 2009 and fiscal 2010.
"I've got to find the money," Mullen said. "The question then gets asked, 'Are you going to fill in this bathtub?" But Mullen said the service could most likely support accelerating purchases of the T-AKE dry cargo carrier. The Navy now plans to buy one T-AKE ship a year over the next five years.