Navy Secretary Ray Mabus: ‘We Face Tough Choices’
The Navy, as most U.S. military agencies, has emerged relatively unscathed from the fiscal 2011 budget deal that slashed spending for domestic programs. But pressures to cut the federal deficit and tackle the soaring national debt could begin to squeeze military budgets next year.
That would prompt a reexamination of Navy missions, Mabus told reporters at a news conference during the Navy League annual convention in National Harbor, Md.
If the defense top line indeed does come down, “I think there will be some hard choices that will have to be made,” including setting priorities for what crises the Navy can respond to, Mabus said.
Depending on the outcome of the 2012 budget debate, he said, “it is not just a math problem, it becomes about what missions are we going to answer to, or not.”
Mabus echoed Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ argument made on Capitol Hill in February, when he accused lawmakers of tackling the defense budget as a “math problem” instead of carefully considering how much money it takes for the military to do the jobs it is currently required to do.
While Mabus declined to make any predictions about future budgets, he said the Navy still expects to proceed with plans to increase the size of its fleet from 286 to 325 ships over the next two decades.
The Navy will allocate on average $14 billion (in 2010 dollars) per year for ship programs for the foreseeable future, he said. “We can get the ships we need with that amount of money,” said Mabus.
Despite studies that have cast doubts on the Navy’s ability to expand the fleet within a flat budget, Mabus said he has “high confidence” in the strategy that is now in place. “We have been absolutely realistic about how much ships have to cost … and about how much money Congress has historically appropriated” for ships, Mabus said.
Analysts and members of Congress in recent months have challenged what they consider rosy Navy projections.
The fleet expansion plan, critics have said, is predicated on too many hypotheticals, the biggest of which is the rising price tags of ships. The Navy is assuming that manufacturers will lower costs, that ship procurement budgets will not be cut in the future, that many of the current ships will stay in service longer than initially planned, and that new ships will be constructed and delivered on schedule.
“Probably the most worrisome aspect of the Navy’s budget is that it will require near-perfect execution,” Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., chairman of the House Armed Services seapower and projection forces subcommittee, said last month.
Congressional Budget Office senior naval analyst Eric Labs has estimated that the cost of the Navy’s plan is at least $21 billion per year. “There is nothing in the Navy’s 2012 budget request that suggests those numbers will change significantly,” Labs said in a March 9 statement.
The Navy’s senior acquisition executive, Sean Stackley, has acknowledged that the proposed fleet expansion goals are indeed ambitious. “Costs have been rising faster than our top line for a long time,” Stackley said at an industry conference in February. “If we don’t change that trend, we’re not going to be able to get there,” he said.
Mabus said the Navy is relying on contracting mechanisms to hold shipbuilders accountable for cost overruns, and is stepping up oversight to prevent fraud.
Until new ships begin to enter service, the Navy also will be challenged to keep current ships seaworthy for as long as possible. Mabus praised Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead for putting in place a new engineering-maintenance regime to speed up ship repairs and keep costs under control.