The Changing Navy

CNO Michael Mullen talks about what it will take to meet new security demands.

When the latest war supplemental clears Congress this spring, it will add roughly $100 billion to the $250 billion in off-budget financing the Pentagon has received since the United States invaded Iraq in 2003. That's in addition to the more than $1 trillion Congress has provided the Defense Department over the past three years. War is expensive, but even so, it's surprising that the military services seem so strapped for cash.

The Navy's high-wire budget balancing act was outlined in some detail by Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael G. Mullen at the National Press Club April 24. Responding to questions I asked him during a 90-minute Government Executive breakfast interview, Mullen expressed concern about the size of the fleet and the difficulty of expanding it. The Navy, down to only 282 ships, needs to grow to 313 to achieve the missions it foresees over the next generation.

Americans love technology, and the military is hardly immune to the romance of the latest cool thing. But technology creep has been the bane of budgets. The new Virginia- class submarines are now costing $2.4 billion, roughly 20 percent more than Mullen insists they must cost. The new class of DD(X) destroyers are priced at $3 billion, before any cuts Mullen might try to achieve.

Mullen's watchword was "stability"-revealing in its acknowledgement of instability in Navy planning in recent times. Mullen's predecessor, Adm. Vern Clark, said in 2004 that the Navy needed 375 ships to do its job. When it became clear that neither Defense leaders nor Congress would approve such a plan, the Navy in early 2005 provided Congress with an interim shipbuilding plan that supported a fleet of 260 to 325 ships over the next three decades. This invites the question (which I asked) of whether the Navy was putting mission first, then declaring what resources were needed to achieve it, or figuring first how much money it would have and redefining the mission accordingly. "I think it's a combination of both," Mullen replied.

Steady commitment to a plan for both size and composition of the fleet is important. Without that, Congress is less willing to provide steady funding, and industry is less willing to make the investments needed to keep shipbuilding cost escalation in check. The number of ships funded each year must continue to grow (from seven in the current budget) in order to replace retiring vessels and still achieve net gains in size. Meantime, the Navy is reducing staff by 10 percent or more.

Mullen painted an interesting picture of the Navy's future-building "cities at sea" to serve as bases for launching invasions; creating a new, Vietnam-style riverine force as one element of a program to project force in shallow waters along the world's coastlines; training more sailors for shore duty in places such as the Horn of Africa and the high-security prisons of Baghdad.

Technology emerges as a theme in this issue-from Beth Dickey's portrayal of the government's successful hurricane prediction program to Brian Friel's description of a defense "idea factory" that planted the seeds of network-centric warfare, to Kimberly Palmer's investigation of the growth of agency venture capital funds to David Perera's account of the Industry Advisory Council's reinvigoration as an adviser to government technologists. It's all about the next new thing.

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