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The Navy began celebrating its birthday Tuesday amid many of the same debates over money and fleet size that the sea service faced during its formation 237 years ago.
“The things that make us a great Navy have not changed” since the Continental Congress on Oct. 13, 1775, approved the outfitting of two sailing vessels with 10 carriage guns and crews of 80 to intercept supply ships of the British, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said at a cake-cutting ceremony in the Pentagon’s auditorium ahead of the official birthday commemoration on Saturday.
Neither have the arguments over cost and the number of ships. In 1775, Samuel Chase of Maryland warned the Continental Congress that the Navy plan would bankrupt the revolutionary cause and called it the “maddest idea in the world."
The current 112th Congress has been caught up in similar debates over military spending and the size and mission of the Navy. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney joined the fray on Monday in a foreign policy address at the Virginia Military Institute.
“The size of our Navy is at levels not seen since 1916,” Romney said. “I'll restore our Navy to the size needed to fulfill our missions by building 15 ships per year, including three submarines. I'll implement effective missile defenses to protect against threats. And on this, there will be no flexibility with (Russian President) Vladimir Putin.”
At the Pentagon, Mabus and Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the chief of Naval Operations, made no reference to Romney’s charges but stressed the overriding importance of “competent and efficient crews” in the modern Navy of 287 ships, more than 3,700 aircraft, and 321,000 active-duty personnel that operates on a budget of about $150 billion.
“The reason we’re the greatest fighting force the world has ever known at sea is our sailors who go to sea,” Mabus said. “That’s our secret weapon, that’s the thing nobody else can replicate.”
“We all know we are in a moment of great strategic transition” with the war in Iraq ended and combat troops scheduled to withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014, said Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter. Under President Obama’s plan announced in January, the military has started to shift emphasis away from the Mideast to focus on the Pacific region and “we see a central role for the U.S. Navy in that strategy," Carter said.
Romney gave only a general outline of his own Navy plan, but some details were provided by a top national security adviser, former Navy Secretary John Lehman, in an interview last week with Defense News.
Lehman said a Romney administration would boost ship production from nine per year to 15, including three submarines, to boost the Navy to 350 ships over 10 years.
“This is what the governor is currently campaigning on -- 15 ships per year, 350 ships in 10 years,” Lehman said.
Romney would also keep 11 carriers in the fleet and create a new 11th carrier air wing.
“Right now, 11 carriers is part of the plan, but also with 11 air wings. We’d have an air wing for every carrier,” Lehman said.
“And we would almost immediately reverse the Obama decision to stop production of the F/A-18 Super Hornet in 2014. We think it’s essential to keep the F-18s in production, as well as the F-35,” Lehman said.
Romney’s plan also called for the production of a new class of frigate and a new ballistic missile defense ship packed with radar and intercept missiles. The new ballistic missile ship would likely use an existing hull from an aging LPD (Landing Platform Dock), Lehman said.
Obama’s current proposals would build the Navy to about 320 ships by 2020, with production levels at about nine ships per year.
In recent interviews and speeches, top Navy officials have defended current plans for the size of the fleet while noting the difficulties involved in the shift to Asia that would put 60 percent of the fleet in the Pacific and 40 percent in the Atlantic by 2020.
"The size of the fleet is about right despite what is discussed in the blogosphere,” said Juan Garcia, the Assistant Navy Secretary for Manpower and Reserve Affairs, in a speech last week.
The rebalance to Asia will go forward despite the current need to keep two carrier battle groups in and near the Persian Gulf to pressure Iran, said Adm. Cecil Haney, commander of the Pacific fleet, in an Oct. 6 interview with the San Diego Times-Union.
“If anything, we have plans to continue to bring better capability forward in the Pacific, even while we’re addressing other problems in the Central Command (Middle East) area,” Haney said.
“The real key is as you look at this eventual split by 2020 of 60 percent of forces in the Pacific, 40 percent in the Atlantic -- that will come about,” Haney said, and the priority will remain in the Pacific. “If I needed it, then we would surge capability from the Atlantic side over here,” Haney told the San Diego Times-Union.