By Megan Scully
April 25, 2008
A key House lawmaker says he plans to reject -- at least for now -- a request by the Navy to temporarily decrease the size of the aircraft carrier fleet to just 10 ships.
House Armed Services Seapower Subcommittee Chairman Gene Taylor, D-Miss., said in an interview Thursday that he would not include language in his panel's markup of the fiscal 2009 defense authorization bill that would relieve the Navy of the current legal requirement that it maintain at least 11 carriers.
Taylor's refusal puts him at odds with the Navy brass; they have asked Congress to waive the law and allow them to retire the nearly 50-year-old USS Enterprise three years before the USS Gerald R. Ford joins the fleet in 2015.
Navy leaders have argued that it would cost $2.2 billion to keep the aging Enterprise operational between 2012 and 2015 -- a hefty sum for a service trying to implement an ambitious, long-term shipbuilding plan.
Lawmakers have raised concerns that the Navy is trying to skirt a provision in the enacted fiscal 2007 defense authorization bill that requires the service to maintain at least 11 carriers, one fewer than mandated under a previous law. The 11-carrier rule, the result of long deliberations between the Navy and lawmakers, allowed the service to retire the USS John F. Kennedy, the last conventional-powered aircraft carrier built by the Navy. "At the moment, they've got the responsibility of funding 11 ships," said Taylor, whose subcommittee plans to mark up its portion of the fiscal 2009 authorization bill on May 8.
A congressional authorization to take the Enterprise out of service is not necessarily required this year because the Navy does not want to retire the ship for several more years. In the hopes that Congress will approve the waiver, service officials already are planning for its retirement and have not included the costs of keeping the Enterprise operational beyond 2012 in long-term budget projections. They also are trying to mitigate the effects of a smaller carrier fleet by expediting a major overhaul on the 22-year-old USS Theodore Roosevelt in an effort to have as many operational carriers as possible between 2012 and 2015.
Despite his concerns, Taylor said he is open to revisiting the issue with the Navy next year, with one caveat: Service officials must provide details about where they would want the $2.2 billion to be spent. Taylor implored Navy officials to do so at a March 14 hearing, but they responded that they have not factored that amount into their long-term budget projections. "For me to say, 'What would I buy with it?' - I don't even know," said Allison Stiller, deputy assistant Navy secretary for ship programs. "That money doesn't exist today. That would be over the shipbuilding budget today."
Still, Taylor and other lawmakers believe the ultimate question is whether money needed to keep the Enterprise in service could be better spent somewhere else in the Navy's budget. "There is only so much money," Armed Services Seapower Subcommittee ranking member Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md., said Thursday. "How is it best spent to protect the American people?" Bartlett added that lawmakers may need more time to discuss the issue. "If we have another year to engage in that discussion, that's wonderful," Bartlett said.
By Megan Scully
April 25, 2008