Obstacles ahead in building bigger Navy fleet

Hugh Lessig
Contact Reporterhlessig@dailypress.com

In October, an underdog presidential candidate backed a plan to boost the Navy fleet by a whopping 30 percent. That candidate is now the incoming commander-in-chief, and it's still his plan.

The Navy has since added a significant amount of detail to President-elect Donald Trump's plan for a 350-ship Navy. It described the composition of that future fleet — upping the plan to 355 vessels to include an extra aircraft carrier and more attack submarines, which would support the Hampton Roads shipbuilding economy.

Now comes the work of turning this plan into reality, which will involve answering several tough questions. Can taxpayers afford a larger fleet? Do shipyards have the capacity to build more vessels? And considering the long-range business of shipbuilding, how fast can the Navy expect to field a larger fleet?

The short answers are maybe, yes, and not for a while. First, here's a look at the current numbers.

The Navy has a fleet of 273 ships. Its 30-year shipbuilding plan calls for 308 ships by fiscal year 2021. That same plan lays out annual shipbuilding budgets of $14.7 billion to $16.8 billion for the first five years.

A recent report from the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service took a deep dive into a 350-ship Navy. It determined Congress would have to add $3.5 billion to $4 billion per year to build up the fleet to where Trump and the Navy want it, a boost of 25 percent in some years.

The funding challenges don't end there.

Congress in 2011 imposed a series of automatic budget cuts known as sequestration to rein in federal spending. Sequestration is roundly despised by Republicans and Democrats because the cuts are automatic and inflexible.

In recent years, Congress has worked around sequestration with short-term deals, but that's not a long-term solution.

Given the limits imposed by sequestration, "the Navy faces challenges in achieving its currently planned 308-ship fleet, let alone a fleet of more than 308 ships," the CRS report states.

U.S. Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Westmoreland, is aware of the challenges, and he may be in a position to steer the debate in 2017. Wittman chairs the readiness panel on the House Armed Services Committee, but he's angling for chairmanship of the committee's sea power panel, which will give him a greater voice in shipbuilding matters. The chairman is outgoing Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Chesapeake.

"I do think you can get there," Wittman said, referring to a larger fleet. "The question is, over what period of time?"

Like other supporters of expansion, he favors taking advantage of "hot" production lines — those assembling current ships — as opposed to starting new classes of ships, which can lead to technical problems, delays and cost overruns, as evidenced by the Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier program.

"You can add an average of two ships per year over 30 years," he said. "Certainly in that realm, it is doable."

But even then, Congress and the Navy must be mindful of other issues.

"You cannot get there if you don't maintain the ships that you have, at their expected service life, while building those new ships," Wittman said.

Unmanned systems represent another opportunity, he said. But again, it's not as simple as adding more drones or unmanned watercraft.

"You still have to be able to operate them from a platform, and they have to be integrated into a group of ships that operate within an area," Wittman said. "I don't think you have massive amounts of capability for these platforms to operate independently of each other."

The CRS report pointed out something else Congress should consider. When it comes to deploying a larger fleet, ship construction is a fraction of the total cost. A 355-ship fleet will require more sailors, weapons systems and possibly additional basing and support facilities.

Wittman said there is no simple answer to the funding dilemma, but any move to expand the fleet "would have to be part of a larger discussion about the budget."

The Pentagon's annual budget, including war funding, approaches $600 billion. So it's conceivable that Congress could find an additional $4 billion a year, Wittman said, if it can get rid of sequestration and abandon the practice of funding the government through continuing resolutions that put spending on autopilot at previous year's levels.

"We need an honest discussion about what it takes to modernize our military," he said.

If Congress can somehow find the money, the next question concerns the capacity of the industrial base. That answer is more definitive, at least when it comes to the man who helms Huntington Ingalls Industries, the nation's largest military shipbuilder.

Mike Petters, CEO of Huntington Ingalls Industries, recently attended the Reagan National Defense Forum in Simi Valley, Calif. In an interview with Defense and Aerospace Report, Petters said HII has anticipated increased demand for aircraft carriers, submarines and/or amphibious warships.

"Before the election, and going back a couple of years, the Navy was looking to recapitalize itself in some way," he said. "We didn't know what that would look like, but in every scenario, the shipyard would have to become more efficient."

That's when HII committed to a $1.5 billion capital investment. But if HII is ready, Congress must also do its part, he said. That means getting rid of sequestration.

"There is no second page if you don't do that on the first page," he said.

Beyond that, Congress can consider block buys of ships. That currently happens with Virginia-class submarines, which is held up as a successful weapons programs. The federal government has, in the past, purchased two aircraft carriers at once. It happened twice during the Reagan years.

Bottom line: Petters is not worried about ramping up demand over the long-term.

"We can ramp up to whatever rate the country wants us to ramp up to, faster than the country can appropriate the money to do it," he said.

Lessig can be reached by phone at 757-247-7821.

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