Aboard Ford, Trump Promises 12 Carriers, Record Navy Growth

President Trump gestures as he speaks to Navy and shipyard personnel aboard nuclear aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford at Newport News Shipbuilding in Newport News, Va., March 2, 2017. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
President Trump gestures as he speaks to Navy and shipyard personnel aboard nuclear aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford at Newport News Shipbuilding in Newport News, Va., March 2, 2017. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

NEWPORT NEWS, Virginia -- President Donald Trump swapped his signature red "Make America Great Again" ballcap for one bearing the seal of the soon-to-be commissioned carrier Gerald R. Ford as he promised to build the biggest Navy in American history in an address aboard the warship.

Hundreds of sailors, sporting ship's ballcaps and blue camouflage utilities, and shipbuilders in hard hats flooded the hangar deck of the soon-to-be-delivered ship hours ahead of Trump's address.

Marine One landed on the carrier just before 1 p.m., preceded by an entourage of three MV-22 Ospreys from HMX-1, the presidential helicopter squadron. Trump, who arrived alongside Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, sported an olive-green flight jacket and lavished praise on the carrier, calling it "a ship like no other."

"There is no competition for this ship," he said. "It is a monument of American might that will provide the strength necessary to ensure peace."

While Trump has taken pointed aim at the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program for its cost overruns, he had nothing but praise for the Ford and its class, despite its own billions in additional costs and more than a year of delay in delivery, due in large part to new technologies the ship incorporates.

"This ship, the Ford class, will expand the ability of our nation to carry out vital missions on the oceans, to project American power in distant lands," he said.

He reiterated his desire to return to a Navy of 12 aircraft carriers, up from the 10 currently in the fleet. And beyond that, Trump said he wants to build the service to its largest fleet size in history.

"Our Navy is now the smallest it's been since -- believe it or not -- World War I," he said. "Don't worry. It'll soon be the largest it's been."

Trump has publicly advocated for a fleet of 350 ships, roughly in keeping with the Navy's current force structure assessment for how it needs to grow over the next 30 years. At its peak in World War II, however, the service had an astounding 6,768 active ships, far more than even ambitious projected fleet growth.

The president also said he'd work to cut acquisition costs, in part by removing budget caps that minimize the Navy's certainty and ability to plan.

"The same boat for less money, the same ship for less money, the same aircraft for less money," he said. "That's what we do."

Like many of Trump's campaign speeches, this address was short on specifics to explain how he plans to execute the promised buildup. He received sustained applause when he reiterated his desire to repeal sequestration budget cuts implemented by Congress.

But his plan to increase defense spending by $54 billion over the next year, revealed by White House officials this week, falls short of the buildup many were hoping for. Senate and House Armed Services Committee Chairmen John McCain and Mac Thornberry have both called the figure too low, while former Navy Under Secretary Janine Davidson said at a Washington, D.C., event that the number would not even fund a Navy buildup to 350 ships.

It's likely that the most significant work of Trump's visit to the Ford happened behind closed doors. In addition to Mattis, a number of key Navy and industry leaders featured prominently in the day's events.

According to shipbuilder Huntington Ingalls Industries spokeswoman Beci Brenton, Trump was greeted on arrival by the Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. John Richardson; retired Adm. Gary Roughead, a former CNO; the commanding officer of the ship, Capt. Richard McCormack; and the ship's sponsor, Susan Ford Bales, daughter of the Ford's namesake.

Accompanied by Mattis, Trump was escorted into the commanding officer's import cabin, where he met briefly with a group of eight sailors and eight shipbuilders. Following that meeting, he had an exclusive sit-down with the CEOs of HII and Newport News Shipbuilding, C. Michael Petters and Matt Mulherin; then took a brief tour of the carrier, Brenton said.

If any key deals were struck Thursday, Trump did not speak of them. He focused instead on a message of patriotism and investment in the future, garnering several hearty rounds of applause.

"I salute you and our sailors," he told the assembled members of the Ford's Navy personnel and shipbuilding team. "I will only support you and your mission. I will never ever let you down."

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at hope.seck@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at@HopeSeck.

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