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Interview: Randy Forbes on Sequestration, the Navy and China

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Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus speaks with Randy Forbes in Forbes' office on June 13, 2013. US Navy Photos

Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus speaks with Randy Forbes in Forbes’ office on June 13, 2013. US Navy Photo

Rep. Randy Forbes (R-VA) — chairman of the House Armed Services Seapower and Projection Forces subcommittee — sat down with USNI News on Sept. 18 to talk about the challenges of sequestration, how he feels about the Littoral Combat Ship program, China, what the Navy is doing right and—more important—what the Navy is doing wrong.

USNI News: Given that the Pentagon’s current budget challenges are a constantly moving target, what are your priorities for the Seapower subcommittee?

Forbes: It’s a big question, you have to start back to the most recent thing in the hearing today. For the first time we had all four service chiefs saying, that if we continue where we’re going with sequestration, based on the cuts that are already taken, that not one single one of them could meet the requirements of the strategic guidelines that we have today.

I think that should be frightening. If it were me . . . I would be having 24-hour meetings to say we‘ve got to fix this.

You had the Army and Marine Corps saying we probably could win one conflict, much less a new one.

We have to shake this building and shake the administration and say you need to step back and see what was done to national defense.

The other statistic that should hit us all in the face is if you look at the Navy alone, in 2007 we met 90 percent of our combatant commanders’ [validated] requirements.

This year and last year together, we’ll meet 50 percent maybe 51 percent. If sequestration continues, we could be down to the 26–27 percent range.

That’s a frightening direction.

We need to make sure we’re not running to the squeaky wheels and running to the immediate needs but that we continue to discipline ourselves to step back and look strategically where we need to go. I would maintain we haven’t done a very good job of that over the past decade or so.

We think we need to strategically step back and ask where are we as a nation. If you look at the past decade, clearly the Army and the Marine Corps were asked to give disproportionate sacrifices, which they did.

But if you look out over the next several decades, they are going to be the decades of the Navy and we need to recognize that.
USNI News: Where do would you like to go from the current moment in time?

Forbes: I think we have to—when we look at that strategic analysis—it’s going to be important that among that calculus we look at our industrial base.

For the last carrier we built, 40 percent of the vendors were sole-source contractors. The current carrier has 60 percent sole-source contractors. The next carrier will be 80 percent.

That’s a frightening place to be if you think we’re down to the point where 80 percent of our vendors can do that work. If one of them goes out of business, what have we got? We also have very little competition. If you look at the air-conditioning units we are putting on our ships now, we get most of those from York. We are now waiting in line behind the Chinese for delivery and we’re paying more money for ours because the Chinese are buying in bulk. We are not able to do that.

If you look at a short, encapsulated view, there is no question in the Navy’s mind that they need the Ohio-class replacement [submarine]. That’s a huge strategic part of our force we’re not going to be able to get along without. The Navy believes that it can’t.

I firmly believe that’s such a big ticket item that we need the [Office of the Secretary of Defense] to take it out of the defense budget and not the shipbuilding budget.

I think very clearly the Virginia-class payload modules are going to be a necessity. It’s a crucial thing for us to do;we need to continue with our Virginia-class subs.

But we also have to turn this corner. I think the CNO said it was around to 250 ships in the Navy. That’s clearly in a direction that is very dangerous for us to be heading.
It’s important that we shift that focus and that priority of where we are and we meet those demands.

USNI News: Given all the problems in the Pentagon at the moment, what do you think needs to get fixed first?

Forbes: First of all we have to resist two things. [One], becoming those people that put forth all of the problems. We have to talk about the problems and they’re there, but it’s very easy in today’s world to simply focus on all of those problems and never move this pie forward. We need a group of people that says, “OK, where do we go from here and what do we do?”

The second thing we need to resist is saying “OK, I have to fix this right now,” because then I don’t focus on the bigger questions.

We have to step back and say strategically what do we need and there will be some debates on that. I’m not punting that; I’m saying we haven’t done that. And we need to do that by having a national defense strategy that’s not based on our procurement policies, but rather procurement polices based on a national defense strategy.

The second thing that’s important to realize that we need to do is go away from the one-third/one-third/one-third basis that we have used [to fund the services] and say “What are our priorities?”

When you do that the first big thing we have to do is get rid of sequestration.
The second thing is, we don’t just don’t want to preserve where defense [spending] is right now but we have to educate policymakers and the public that you have to put more into national defense than what we’re putting in today, not less, if you want to protect this country.

USNI News: How do you handle sequestration? What’s your perspective?

Forbes: I thought sequestration was always a bad idea, voted against it, fought against it, went around the country to try to change people’s ideas on itk but it doesn’t help us out a whole lot now to point fingers on why we got here. The key is where we go from here.

I would love the House and the Senate to come up with a solution on what they’re going to do on this debt limit that does away with sequestration, at least for national defense. I think you’ll see a growing momentum to do away with sequestration in the very near future and I think that’s a first step of what we have to do.

USNI News: Moving ahead with the Ford-class carriers. The Navy has decided it is going to push back construction on the planned carrier John F. Kennedy (CVN-79) and there are other challenges with the program. From your perspective, what’s going right and what’s going wrong?

Forbes: I think first of all, we always know we have expenses in the carrier program and that comes from efficiencies we get as we produce more down the road. I think we need to put pressure on the department to find ways of delivering these. There’ are some procurement concerns. You would have [former Navy Secretary] John Lehman and [former CNO] Gray Roughead feel that this idea of getting 40 different approvals before you do anything not only creates a delay, but creates enormous cost increases on us. But we also have to put pressure on the contractors and say “You have to bring these things in on a better cost-structure than we’ve had.”

Having said that, the biggest problem we’ve had with the carriers is not the carriers themselves but with Congress and the president.

USNI News: Same question on the Littoral Combat Ship program: What’s going right with that program, what’s going wrong?

Forbes: We have some people that love the LCS, including most of the people in the Navy. The LCS, I think, is still kind of birthing its way through. The Navy thinks this is going to fill a niche that they have. I think that you have seen the CNO has cut back the number of buys. One of our concerns has been that by the time we get the modules complete we’ll have 25 percent of the hull life used up in the LCS.
The Navy would respond by saying the LCS has met the requirement levels that they have, it’s that they have so many things that are exceeding those requirement levels that it gives them more flexibility and opportunities.

I think we need the LCS; I think the LCS provides a valuable tool for the Navy. But I don’t think the LCS is going to ever replace some of our other platforms.

There are some unknowns out there, but I think it’s fair for our committee to give the Navy leeway to try to deploy these things and make their case . . .

It’s been about as fair and open debate on any platform I’ve seen. I’m glad they’re doing [studies] on the pluses and the minuses of those things. I think every ship we have has some of those and it’s far healthier for us in developing our Fleet rather than squashing and not having those debates.

USNI News: There is some debate in and outside the Navy on the future of the destroyer fleet. Adm. Tom Copeman’s leaked November memo recommended to the CNO that the Navy not pursue the Flight III Arleigh Burke-class destroyer (DDG-51). Do you have a position on that?

Forbes: No. I think it’s important to look at the capabilities in terms of space and the energy especially as we look at different weapon systems we could potentially use.

There are always two conflicting things that we hear. One of our major contractors told us the other day how important it was for us to resist the tyranny of change and I think that’s important.

If we start out [developing] one of these platforms and then change it 50 times, the cost is enormous. The flip side is we constantly want to look at innovations and how we can build these.

The mix there is that we’re developing a hull that won’t succumb to that tyranny of change but we’re able to use modular concepts to make sure we can change the electronics, weapons systems, those kind of things as we move down the road.

USNI News: Where do you and the Navy disagree?

Forbes: Not so much on platforms. I would say I had more disagreement with the Navy a year ago. I felt that we had too many gag orders over at the Pentagon; I didn’t think they could be forthright on what these cuts could ultimately do to us.

But I give high marks to the CNO. He’s come a long way. He’s doing the analysis and we have a great relationship.

[The Navy’s top acquisition official] Sean Stackley is another one I would single out. He’s doing just enormously good work over there.

In the past year, there’s been a greater willingness to sit down at the table and put all the facts out there. It’s OK to say we’ve got problems with this or that system and then we fix the problems. I think the thing that would frustrate us is if we started sweeping those problems under the table or trying to play hide the ball and don’t talk about those things.

Where I would have some disagreements, is with some of their alternative energy program. I haven’t seen the analysis that justifies doing [those programs].

USNI News: What’s next for the Seapower committee?

Forbes: We’re going to have a look at a number of strategic things including the Asia-Pacific area, making sure we have the right capabilities there. I think it will be a huge undertaking and keep us very busy.

USNI News: What’s your opinion on Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy in the Rim of the Pacific 2014 international naval exercise?

Forbes: I’m a little concerned on how our allies feel about that. I think it’s important our allies feel comfortable about their participation. Most of the time I feel [the allies] get more out of the exercise than we ever get out of that participation.

USNI News: CNO Adm. Greenert said today there were eight or nine things the U.S. Navy was working on with the PLAN. Is that something you’re following?

Forbes: We don’t know what those eight or nine things are. It’s something we’re very interested in and I do believe there are always those opportunities for dialogue.

I think there are some real opportunities; you just have to be careful. I have not historically seen us do a very good job negotiating with the Chinese. They normally walk out of the room with the cake and we end up with the plate.

We want to make sure we’re not doing that in those in those eight or nine things.