Backers of U.S. Naval Buildup Sail Against the Tide
It became a sound bite of Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign: The U.S. Navy has fewer ships now than it did in 1917. The Republican candidate, however, could not sell voters on building ships, not even in Virginia, which is home to major Navy shipyards.
His former consultants have not given up the cause, though. A new book released this week by the conservative-leaning nonprofit think tank The Hudson Institute seeks to revive the topic. “Mayday: The Decline of American Naval Supremacy,” by erstwhile Romney adviser Seth Cropsey, warns that the Navy is headed toward irreversible decline and blames Washington policymakers who
“continue to neglect crucial questions concerning the necessary size, shape, and geostrategic understanding of our Navy.”
Based on current ship procurement forecasts, the U.S. Navy could over the next two to three decades be overmatched by other powers’ such as China or Russia, Cropsey surmises.
“There is a naval disarmament under way” in the United States, he says during the book’s launch event in Washington.
Even the staunchest naval hawks do not expect the United States to ever return to the 600-ship heyday of the Reagan administration. But they point at today’s 286-ship fleet and fear that a smaller Navy will soon be too small to conduct regular deployments around the world, as it has for decades.
Whether the number of ships matters has been a contentious point of discussion within Navy circles. Some experts like former Navy Undersecretary Robert Work have said that more technologically advanced ships and weapons can make up for having fewer of them. Traditionalists insist that numbers do count, as a ship can only be in one place at a time. Romney sought to make that point during one of the presidential debates last fall, but Obama ended up with the winning zinger when he bashed Romney for talking about the Navy fleet as if it were a “game of Battleship, where we're counting ships.”
The politics of shipbuilding are permanently on display on Capitol Hill, where members who represent shipyards wrangle with Pentagon civilian and military officials over the proper funding levels for ship programs. The bickering has intensified of late as Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on seapower and projection forces, continues to lob accusations that Navy leaders are allowing the fleet to wither.
Forbes was on hand at Cropsey’s book launch to lend his support for “Mayday.” He says he, too, worries that the Navy is shrinking, that its leaders gloss over the issue and keep promising that the fleet will be back above 300 ships within a decade. “The Navy’s shipbuilding plan is in a fantasy world,” Forbes says.
The Navy’s objective is to continue retiring old vessels and build new ones to achieve a 306-ship inventory. Forbes has blasted Navy leaders for continuing to decommission ships while funding for new ships stays flat.
“Most of the new ships get built in the out-years, some as late as 2037,” says Forbes. When he asked Navy leaders to explain how they would fill a $4 billion annual shortfall in shipbuilding accounts, Forbes says, they failed to provide answers.
Without stronger advocacy from within the Navy, Forbes fears, getting more money for new ships will be a tough sell.
So far, there are no signs that members other than Forbes and a handful of allies have the interest or desire to engage in this debate. The National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2014 that is now making its way through Congress essentially endorses the Navy’s plan.
Forbes contends that, once members become better educated on this issue, they will rethink their positions.
“We are beginning to lay the groundwork to make changes,” he says. “This is going to take not weeks or months but years to change policy makers’ thinking and the way the public thinks.”
Forbes says he will push House leaders to host mandatory conferences where members would be briefed on issues such as the impact of shipbuilding budget cuts on national security. “We're trying to get defense contractors, the military, academics, and think tanks, to come together on message points that we need to get to the public,” he says.
He concedes that in today’s polarized Congress, rallying members around a single issue is an uphill battle. With a budget stalemate andmandatory spending cuts across the federal government, convincing a majority of members to take money from other programs to pay for more ships seems unlikely, Forbes acknowledges.
“I can't stop all the selfishness in the world,” he says. “There are three big cancers destroying national defense,” he says. First is the current budget cuts. Another is a wasteful procurement process that is overly bureaucratized. The third is the rising cost of military overhead and personnel that is eating into other portions of the budget, such as research and procurement of new weapons.
Forbes says he would like at least to see “real analysis” about naval requirements as the military shifts focus to the Asia-Pacific region.
Unfortunately for the Navy, no such analysis is taking place, contends Bryan McGrath, another former Romney adviser and one of the authors of the U.S. Navy's 2007 maritime strategy, titled, "A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower.”
He describes the Navy’s 30-year shipbuilding plan as “80 percent fiction.”
Although there is a “strategic rationale” for a larger fleet, the Navy treats shipbuilding strictly as a budget item that has to fit within its top line funding, McGrath says. “Cost estimates represent a
Kabuki [dance] between the Navy and Congress that is almost embarrassing,” he says. The Navy often underestimates the cost of ships, and Congress fails to challenge the numbers because it doesn’t want to deal with the sticker shock, says McGrath. As a result, fewer ships get built. “There is no strategic thinking in the Navy,” he says. “We rely on bureaucratic approaches to strategy that value consensus and collegiality.”
Even defense contractors whose livelihood depends on Navy programs protect the status quo, says McGrath. “We need a strategic dialogue in this country that is supported by the companies that are dependent on it,” he says. “It is in their interest to make the smart play, not the safe play.”
Ultimately, the best chance that shipbuilding advocates might have at moving the political needle is to play the jobs card.
The Shipbuilders Council Of America, an organization that represents U.S. manufacturers, is crunching data that show the economic impact of Navy ship contracts not just on shipyards’ immediate surrounding communities but also on landlocked states that are home to many subcontractors.
Joe Carnevale, a retired Navy rear admiral and a senior adviser at SCA, takes issue with McGrath’s assertions that the industry has been passive about Navy spending decisions.
“That is unfair criticism,” he says in an interview. “Industry has been very proactive,” he says. Companies focus on five-year spending projections, rather than 30-year plans that are mostly based on conjecture, Carnevale says. When the Navy was considering cancelling all ship maintenance contracts last year as a result of the budget standoff on Capitol Hill, SCA swiftly mobilized to explain to members the ramification that those contract terminations would have on jobs and the economy, says Carnevale. Industry advocacy in recent years, he adds, also helped boost submarine, amphibious vessel and aircraft carrier production.
The shipbuilding industry is going to be engaged in this debate, he says. “There is short term optimism, but long term trepidation.”
Forbes’ criticism of the Navy’s 30-year plan has to be seen in context, he says. The plan has always suffered from wishful thinking. “It's done in a vacuum from the rest of the budget,” says Carnevale. “It doesn't have to balance across the Navy or the Defense Department budget.”
Shipbuilders want to help Forbes “get his message across” on the strategic rationale for building more ships, he says. But in the end it will be jobs that will stir members to action. “Many members don't realize that their landlocked district produces materials and goods that go into ships, both military and commercial. Their community has a stake in the shipyard business,” he says. “We plan to start getting that information out to members of Congress.”
The Navy, for its part, defends the current ship-buying plan and disputes the notion that it is unilaterally disarming.
"Our 30-year shipbuilding plan clearly articulates our intention to modernize and grow the fleet to our required minimum of 306 ships,” Navy spokeswoman Lt. Caroline Hutcheson says in a statement. “The plan conveys the need to decommission older ships, while at the same introducing new and more capable platforms.” Navy Secretary Ray Mabus and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert, she says, “Have been clear about the need to further our success in shipbuilding.” Since Mabus took over in 2009, she adds, the Navy has put more than 50 new ships under contract. Still, Hutchenson says, “We look forward to a robust and productive dialogue with the Congress, as we continue to discuss the way forward.”