Senators fear budget may shortchange Navy shipbuilding

Lawmakers also ask Marine Corps whether the supplemental spending bills allot enough for overhauls of equipment damaged in Iraq.

Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee raised concerns Thursday that the Defense Department's fiscal 2007 budget request does not support a plan to increase the Navy's fleet from 281 to 313 ships.

The Pentagon wants to spend $11.2 billion on new ships next year, far short of the $13.5 billion the Navy says it needs annually to carry out its ambitious plan. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., one of the Pentagon's staunchest supporters among Democrats, praised the Navy for the "worthy goal," but said the budget request was inadequate.

"I think we have to recognize that reality," he said. Indeed, congressional cost estimates place the plan's annual costs at $20 billion -- far larger than the $13.5 billion price tag offered by Adm. Michael Mullen, chief of naval operations.

With the services already stretched financially to pay for a slew of new weapons systems, there is not a "snowball's chance in Gila Bend, Arizona" that the Navy can pour that much into its acquisition accounts to increase its fleet by 32 ships, said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

McCain, who has regularly chided military officials for rising weapons system costs, urged Navy leaders to rein in ship prices. "I never thought I'd live so long to see a destroyer that cost $2-$3 billion," said McCain, a Navy veteran. "If this continues, you'll never see a 313-ship Navy."

In particular, McCain said, the Navy must stop adding unplanned -- and unbudgeted -- technologies to its already expensive ships and submarines. "I'd hate for us to not be able to afford what we need," he said. Mullen acknowledged that rising costs could thwart his ambitious goals. But he stressed that a stable plan would end erratic budgeting for ships, and eventually reduce prices.

Lieberman, whose state is home to General Dynamics' Electric Boat division, urged the Navy to consider buying two nuclear submarines a year in 2009, three years earlier than planned. The Navy has budgeted to buy only one new sub annually through 2012 -- a decision the Connecticut delegation fears may result in massive layoffs of highly skilled designers and engineers at Electric Boat.

But Mullen stood firm, and emphasized that boosting submarine purchases in the short-term would "potentially destabilize" his plan.

Senators quizzed the Marine Corps on whether the supplemental spending bills adequately covered the cost of overhauls to equipment damaged in Iraq. The recent fiscal 2006 supplemental request includes $5.1 billion to pay for Marine Corps equipment repairs, with $6.4 billion more deferred to fiscal 2007, said Gen. Michael Hagee, the Marine Corps commandant. Hagee said the Marine Corps could realistically handle $1 billion more in equipment repair and replacement this fiscal year.