Navy must start asking Congress for more money, says analyst

The service has been mum on extra funding needs for shipbuilding; inaccurate cost estimates are undermining credibility with lawmakers.

If the Navy doesn't want to end up on the losing side of the budget battle among the military services, it needs to start calling publicly for more money instead of flying below the radar, said a congressional budget expert earlier this week.

Ron O'Rourke, a naval analyst with the Congressional Research Service, said that of all the services, the Navy is the least well-positioned to get what it wants in the looming battle over a Defense budget he repeatedly characterized as "less open ended" than previous budget cycles. He spoke Tuesday at the Navy League Sea Air Space exposition in Washington, D.C.

As the military commitment in Iraq is reduced, pressure on the Defense budget will increase as Congress becomes less willing to provide extra money in emergency wartime supplementals. The Army recently said it needs up to $260 billion per year to continue fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, increase its size and repair war-worn equipment. The Air Force said it needs at least $20 billion more per year for the next five years, or its aging planes will fall out of the sky.

For its part, the Navy largely has been silent about extra funding needs. While that may play well with officials in the Pentagon, O'Rourke said, it's destroying the Navy's credibility on Capitol Hill. The Navy continually has failed to provide accurate cost estimates for its 30-year shipbuilding plan, intended to construct a modern 313-ship battle fleet.

At a March 14 House Armed Services subcommittee hearing, Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss., called the Navy plan "pure fantasy" and unaffordable under current budgets.

Adding to the Navy's credibility problem, O'Rourke said, was the agency's characterization as "worst case scenario" estimates from the Congressional Budget Office that pegged shipbuilding costs as much higher than the Navy's own figures. The Navy then released a new cost estimate that was 40 percent higher than the 2007 number -- one that was closer to CBO's figures. O'Rourke said lawmakers now put more stock in CBO's numbers.

O'Rourke said that while competition among the services to fund their prized weapons programs will continue to grow, the Navy is the least well-positioned to lay claim to available funding. Repairing the Army's and Marine Corps' war-worn equipment returning from Iraq is viewed by many lawmakers as a top funding priority. The Navy's maritime strategy that envisioned a partnership with foreign navies to patrol sea lanes convinced some lawmakers that other nations can shoulder that burden.

O'Rourke said most national security discussions focus on terrorism and do not include the issue of Chinese military modernization, a subject directly related to the Navy's shipbuilding plan. He said the Navy should begin talking more frequently, "without exaggeration," about China's military modernization, and the potential risks it poses to U.S. security. He also said the service must begin to lay the groundwork for larger budget requests now by honestly telling Congress how much it needs for shipbuilding.

Speaking at the same event, the Navy's Fleet Forces commander, Adm. Jonathan Greenert, said his service's knee-jerk reaction of wanting to build new weapons or systems immediately as countermeasures when potential enemies field a new missile, ship or aircraft, drives costs to unacceptable levels. He said that while building a new weapon occasionally might be the right approach, seeking "one-on-one" technical solutions to every military challenge forces defense manufacturers to push the technology envelope, an expensive approach over the long haul.

Instead, Greenert advocates a broader "end-to-end" solution that looks at adjusting tactics and doctrine, using deception, seeking out better intelligence and borrowing best practices from the other services.