Wittman: Armed Services Committee Won’t Accept Proposed Navy Shipbuilding Plan; More Hulls Needed

February 15, 2018 3:02 PM
Aviation Boatswain’s Mate (Handling) Airman Austin Kreilis, assigned to the air department aboard the amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6), signals an MV-22 Osprey to lift off from the flight deck. US Navy photo.

CAPITOL HILL – The House Armed Services Committee will not accept a Navy shipbuilding plan of anything lower than 13 ships and $26 billion in Fiscal Year 2019, a subcommittee chairman said, suggesting HASC may add several ships beyond what the Navy requested earlier this week.

Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.), who chairs the HASC seapower and projection forces subcommittee, said this morning that “the floor for shipbuilding in FY ‘19 needs to be no less than $26.2 billion and 13 ships. Period. Bottom line.” The House of Representatives agreed to those numbers for the current FY 2018 spending plan, which has still not been approved by the Senate and passed into law, but Wittman argued those figures must be approved this year and continued into 2019.

Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.) is pictured while chairing the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee. DoD Photo

“This year’s appropriations bill reflects $26.2 billion ad 13 ships’ construction. In the president’s budget (for 2019), about $21 billion and 10 ships. Folks, the bottom line is this: we know what we need as far as numbers of ships; we know to get there in the most cost-effective manner, serial production is key; we know also we’ve got to get off the rollercoaster ride of building some ships and then coming back down and then building some more ships. You cannot maintain an industrial base, you cannot plan for future operations without the certainty that comes with that,” Wittman said at an annual Amphibious Warship Industrial Base Coalition congressional event.

Naval Battle Force Inventory, from the Report to Congress on the Annual Long-Range Plan for
Construction of Naval Vessels for Fiscal Year 2019.

Several other HASC members, both Democrat and Republican, agreed. Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wisc.) said last year’s National Defense Authorization Act put into law the notion that the Navy should aim for a 355-ship fleet as expeditiously as possible, and a budget and accompanying 30-year shipbuilding plan “that ignores that matter of law and does not get us to 355 in as practical and timely a manner as possible is, quite frankly, inadequate.” Rep. Donald McEachin (D-Va.) said “I am disappointed by the president’s budget, it should contain more than 10 ships.” McEachin added that it would be easier to argue for sufficient new ships if the Pentagon’s request had started a little higher, but he said he was committed to working with Wittman and others to boost the 2019 shipbuilding profile.

The Navy’s shipbuilding plan, released Monday along with the FY 2019 budget request, never actually reaches 355 ships – the plan ends in FY 2048, and the Navy wouldn’t reach 355 until the 2050s. The plan tops out at 342 in 2039 and 2041.

The plan does acknowledge the 355-ship goal and notes three elements of a plan to grow the force. “Steady, sustainable growth” will “establish minimum baseline acquisition profiles that grow the force at a sustainable, affordable rate while protecting the overall balanced warfighting investment strategy,” including readiness, training, improved capability, manning and more.

“Aggressive growth” opportunities are identified to boost shipbuilding as “industrial capacity and increased resources permit.” The Navy does not advocate for specific ship classes or timeframes in which it would want to be aggressive, but it does include a chart that identifies its stable procurement profile while noting excess shipyard capacity where the Navy – or Congress – could choose to buy additional ships or move up procurement of aircraft carriers to fill that excess yard capacity and create a more cost-effective acquisition profile.

Service life extensions for current ships are also pursued to help keep ship inventory numbers up in the short-term.

Stable Procurement Profile, from the Report to Congress on the Annual Long-Range Plan for
Construction of Naval Vessels for Fiscal Year 2019,

Beyond simply arguing for more ships, lawmakers specifically called for paying for the remainder of either an LPD-30 amphibious transport dock or the first in the follow-on LX(R) class; accelerating the procurement timeline of amphibious assault ship LHA-9, which is set to follow seven years behind the future Bougainville (LHA-8) even though the ships could be built about four years apart; and enhancing the offensive and defensive capabilities of the amphibious ships through command and control, air defense, anti-surface and other capability additions for the big-deck amphibs in particular.

Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Robert Neller spoke at the event and agreed that the amphibious ships “have got to be more capable than they are today, they’ve got to be more lethal.”

“These are warships, they aren’t transport ships,” he quipped.

The Marines have long argued they need more ships – the service has been pushing for 38 ships for many years, even as the Navy for a while touted a fiscally constrained 34-amphib goal, and combatant commanders’ requests for amphibs total somewhere north of 50 ships a year. Neller said at the event that finding the right balance between quantity and capability of the ships is difficult, but that “I would trade numbers of ships for capability if that was the trade.”

“To buy a whole bunch of ships that don’t have survivability, that don’t have command and control, that don’t have air defense, that don’t have some form of surface-to-surface strike, that’s not going to solve the problem,” he said.
“With technology changing, we’ve got to build these ships – particularly … with the command and control suite, you’ve got to build that thing a little more open architecture because it takes five to seven years to build a ship, who knows what the communication technology’s going to be.”

Neller noted the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter has already been fielded globally and would make its first appearance in U.S. Central Command this fall when the Essex Amphibious Ready Group and 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit deploy this fall. That plane, for all the technological capabilities it has, can only effectively leverage its computing power and sensors and battlespace management capabilities if it can network with the amphibious ships in the fleet and the Marines preparing to land ashore, the commandant said.

In addition to upgrading some of the amphibs’ capabilities, Neller said this week’s budget request also starts to look at “all the things that we have not had to deal with in the past 17 years of war: whether it be information and electronic warfare, whether it be improved intelligence analysis, air defense, things like that. Those are the things that are still driving us, in addition to being able to maneuver from the sea.”

Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Robert Neller sits down for lunch with infantry squad leaders during a visit to Twentynine Palms, Calif., February 7, 2018. US Marine Corps photo.

Also at the event, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments senior fellow Bryan Clark said his recent analysis supports the Marines’ assessment that they need at least 38 amphibs, but for different reasons. The Marines have maintained they need that many ships to support a massive two-Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB) assault on enemy territory, for a major Iwo Jima-like landing. Clark, however, said adversaries like Russia and China would likely not risk a massive war with the United States, where the U.S. joint force would bring all the resources it had to bear. Instead, he said, the U.S. is more likely to face a lot of little aggressions in more of a “gray zone warfare” situation. To effectively respond to that scenario, the Navy and Marine Corps need to operate a distributed fleet, putting into practice the Expeditionary Advance Base Operations concept released last year.

Clark also issued a warning about industrial base fragility as the Navy and lawmakers consider the shipbuilding plans for the coming years. He warned that some yards – such as Austal USA and Marinette Marine, who both build the Littoral Combat Ship – are at risk as that program draws to a close, but are highly capable of building hotly in-demand small commercial ships for coastal and river operations, so he predicted they would not close as a result of the Navy’s shipbuilding plans but might leave the defense industrial base. Large yards, like Ingalls Shipbuilding that constructs all amphibious ship classes currently in production, are not at risk of shuttering due to instability in the shipbuilding plans, but he said their prices to the Navy may go up if the Navy offers less-efficient production schedules.

What is of most concern, he said, are the suppliers that do business with the shipbuilders. Some are owned by larger companies that may grow tired of the ups and downs of government shipbuilding, and others are small companies that may just shutter. Protecting these kinds of suppliers – some of which are sole sources of particular components – must be a priority for the Navy and Congress, he said.

Megan Eckstein

Megan Eckstein

Megan Eckstein is the former deputy editor for USNI News.

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