Deputy Defense nominee fields questions over shipbuilding, acquisition

Navy Secretary Gordon England vows to fix the department's acquisition mechanism.

President Bush's pick to be the next deputy Defense secretary faced tough questions on Navy shipbuilding plans and defense acquisition from senators Tuesday.

During his two-hour confirmation hearing, Navy Secretary Gordon England told Armed Services Committee members he would seek to simplify what he described as an overly complex defense acquisition system.

England said the matter is being evaluated as part of the Pentagon's 2005 Quadrennial Defense Review, a comprehensive look at military strategy, requirements, force structure and assets.

"We do have a QDR effort look at the whole acquisition aspect," England told the panel, adding that better oversight of the department's acquisition system would require a clearer understanding of how that system works.

Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain agreed with England that fixing the department's acquisition mechanism would not be easy but said any new legislation that imposes additional bureaucracies, regulations or other strictures on the system would be counterproductive and likely increase program costs.

McCain was referring, in particular, to the Navy's increasingly anemic shipbuilding budget and the inability of the service to keep pace with rising costs associated with what many see as a lack of competition among the nation's two major shipyards. Senate Armed Services Chairman John Warner, R-Va., agreed, asserting that Pentagon leaders must persuade the president of the need to provide sufficient funds for shipbuilding to "turn this curve around."

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., questioned the wisdom of the Navy's plan this year to mothball the USS John F. Kennedy and eventually retire the USS Kitty Hawk -- the nation's only two non-nuclear aircraft carriers -- given that Japan may ultimately decide it does not want to port a U.S. nuclear carrier.

England said he could not estimate the cost to pull the JFK out of mothballs if necessary, or the amount of time the Kitty Hawk could remain in service without requiring dry-dock repairs, but promised to answer these questions in writing. Warner and Nelson offered an amendment to the FY05 wartime supplemental before the Senate that would extend the JFK's service.