Navy, Marine request sparks skepticism in House

Navy and Marine Corps leaders found more questions than support as they presented their fiscal 2010 budget requests to the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday. Committee members questioned the apparent lack of analysis for a series of program cuts and delays, wondered what happened to the Navy's long-standing goal of a 313-ship fleet, and expressed skepticism over the future of some high-profile programs.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton, D-Mo., and ranking member John McHugh, R-N.Y., also questioned the plan to relocate 8,000 Marines from bases in Japan and challenged the request for hundreds of millions of dollars for research on shipbuilding programs whose future is in doubt.

The grilling from the usually supportive panel echoed the response it gave on Wednesday to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who made most of the decisions that troubled committee members. Adm. Gary Roughead, the chief of naval operations, and Gen. James Conway, the Marine Corps commandant, supported the administration's budget but expressed concern about their ability to meet demands for their forces.

Roughead cited the heavy deployment schedule of Navy ships and personnel and said they were able to meet current requirements but were "stretched in our ability to respond to additional demands." He said the Navy's procurement plan "is not optimal. We need additional capabilities."

The Navy's top officer acknowledged a growing shortage of carrier-based strike fighters and said the on-time delivery of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter was essential to avoiding a major lack of capability. At the same time, he requested congressional relief from the requirement to maintain 11 operational aircraft carriers, in order to avoid spending $2.8 billion to extend the USS Enterprise, the oldest nuclear-powered carrier. In his prepared testimony, Conway noted the extensive wear and attrition of Marine equipment after nearly eight years of combat and expressed concern about the shortage of amphibious shipping, which could be exacerbated by program delays Gates ordered.

Conway supported the planned move of Marines to Guam, but said Guam would not be able to provide the training facilities his Marines would need. He said the Marines were looking at a neighboring island as a site for more training grounds. McHugh asked Roughead how he could justify seeking $500 million to continue research on the DDG-1000, which is being terminated at three ships, and $800 million to start work on a replacement for the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines, when that program is subject to review in the QDR. He suggested the money would be better used to buy ships that were deferred or the nine F/A-18s that were dropped from previous plans. Conway said the $500 million was needed to complete the combat systems software that would allow the DDG-1000 to operate and would benefit future carriers. He said it was essential to start work on the next ballistic submarine because of its importance to the nation's nuclear deterrence.

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