Navy Plans to Cut Shipbuilding Budget Face Swift Pushback on Capitol Hill

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The Virginia-class attack submarine Minnesota under construction.
The Virginia-class attack submarine Minnesota (SSN 783) is under construction at Huntington Ingalls Newport News Shipbuilding. (U.S. Navy/courtesy of Newport News Shipbuilding)

Lawmakers are hitting back against the Navy's plans to cut shipbuilding over the next several years just hours after the service presented its 2021 budget request.

Navy officials announced Monday plans to spend $16.4 billion on eight ships in 2021 -- a more than $5 billion drop from the 12 hulls it bought last year. The Navy also laid out plans to buy a total of 44 ships over the next five years. This time last year, the Navy was planning to buy 55 new ships by 2024.

The change in plans has some on Capitol Hill concerned that the service won't be able to meet its requirement to build a 355-ship Navy. That number was signed into law in 2017 after President Donald Trump campaigned on building a bigger fleet.

China, Rep. Rob Wittman said on Tuesday, is likely building up to a 420-ship navy. The U.S. must stay on track to meet its own 355-ship requirement in order to be capable of taking on near-peer threats, the Virginia Republican said.

"We have continued to make that investment and as we saw with the president's budget, we have some differences there," Wittman said at a congressional forum hosted by the Amphibious Warship Industrial Base Coalition. "We need to continue that investment in shipbuilding."

Rep. Mike Gallagher, a Wisconsin Republican, said Monday's budget request created "a lot of confusion."

"Congress can't want a bigger and stronger fleet more than the Navy and the Marine Corps want a bigger and stronger fleet," he said.

Rep. Joe Courtney, Connecticut Democrat and chairman of the House seapower and projection forces subcommittee, in a Monday statement called the 2021 shipbuilding budget "dead on arrival."

"The President's shipbuilding budget is not a 355-ship Navy budget," Courtney said. "... This weak, pathetic request for eight ships -- of which two are tugboats -- is not only fewer ships than 2020, but fewer ships than the Navy told us last year it planned for 2021."

During Monday's Defense Department budget rollout, Rear Adm. Randy Crites, deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for budget, said the service had to weigh its need for more ships against the ability to keep the vessels it already has ready and maintained.

"It's what we can afford," Crites said. "We can't hollow out the force. ... We dug a hole, it was a deeper hole than we thought, I think, in terms of our readiness.

"It's really what we can afford to do," he added.

The Navy plans to buy two new subs -- its first of the new Columbia-class and one Virginia class, a pair of destroyers, a next-generation frigate, an amphibious transport dock, and two towing, salvage and rescue vessels next year.

Related: Navy's 1st 4 Littoral Combat Ships Head to Retirement as Shipbuilding Budget Drops

Purchasing the first Columbia-class sub is the Navy's highest shipbuilding priority in 2021, Crites said, even though the budget didn't increase much compared to last year.

"At the end of the day, [we have] a flat topline that's not even keeping up with inflation," he said. "That's with the much more complex ships we're bringing on -- they're more expensive and they're more expensive to maintain."

Several lawmakers acknowledged that the Navy and Marine Corps may need to look at new ship types as part of the 355-vessel fleet. Innovation is likely necessary, Gallagher said.

"But we need a plan," he added. "We need to work ... on what an integrated naval force looks like in a way that we can explain to our colleagues and to the American people, lest we wake up three years from now and look back fondly on the days when we were calling for the 355 ship Navy and wondering what the heck happened with that."

Wittman called the Navy's new shipbuilding plans a "first draft." Now Congress must take the budget plan and ask, "Where do we go from here?" he said.

Rep. Jack Bergman, a Michigan Republican, agreed, calling the Navy's plans "a starting point."

"It's a vision," Bergman, a retired Marine three-star general, said. "... But we in Congress have the final say. That's what we do."

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at gina.harkins@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.

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