Lawmakers criticize shipbuilding budget

Navy leaders and members of the House Armed Services Committee had very different views Wednesday on the adequacy of the Navy's long-term shipbuilding plan, with panel leaders and members from both parties calling the proposed fiscal 2011 funding insufficient to build the fleet needed.

Although Navy Secretary Ray Mabus and Adm. Gary Roughead, the chief of naval operations, testified that their fiscal 2011 budget and the 30-year shipbuilding plan would take the Navy over the 313-ship force it wants, lawmakers asserted that the fleet would shrink, with one quoting a Congressional Budget Office study predicting a drop to 270 ships.

Committee members also complained that the budget and the long-term aviation plan did not close the "strike-fighter gap" created by the delayed deployment of the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and retirement of aging F/A-18s.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton, D-Mo., said the shipbuilding program "only partially accomplishes" the goal of increasing the fleet. And he warned that the cost of building ballistic missile submarines to replace the current 14 Ohio-class SSBNs is so high that efforts to increase surface ships and attack submarines "may have to be sacrificed."

House Armed Services Committee ranking member Howard (Buck) McKeon, R-Calif., raised the same objection, noting that the projected $7 billion cost for each new SSBN would consume nearly half of the annual shipbuilding account.

There have been proposals to make construction of the ballistic subs a national program, similar to missile defense, which would be funded separately from the Navy's shipbuilding program.

Armed Services Seapower Subcommittee Chairman Gene Taylor, D-Miss., told the Navy officials that if they could not provide enough ships administratively "we'll have to do it legislatively." Taylor particularly protested the Navy's plans to retire the remaining Perry-class frigates with no replacements.

He proposed a service life extension program that could keep the frigates in service for five more years at a total cost of about $3 billion.

Taylor also warned that he planned legislation that would require the Navy to build three ships for every two it wanted to retire.

Two Republican members from the Norfolk, Va., area, Reps. Rob Wittman and Randy Forbes, pressed the Navy leaders to justify spending up to $1 billion to allow transfer of a nuclear powered aircraft carrier from Norfolk to Mayport, Fla., citing the Navy's list of $572 million in "unfunded requirements."

Roughead insisted that the plan to build at least 10 new ships each year would produce a fleet of 330 by 2020.

Pressed by Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., on Boeing's offer to provide as much as a 10 percent discount for a multiyear procurement contract for F/A-18s, built in Missouri, Mabus said the Navy was working with Defense Department officials to accept that proposal.

Questioned by McKeon and others, Mabus, Roughead and Gen. James Conway, the Marine Corps commandant, joined other service leaders in urging Congress not to legislate a moratorium in discharges under the "don't ask, don't tell" law until the Pentagon can complete its study on the impact of repealing the ban on gays in the military.

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