Lawmakers warned the Pentagon chief Wednesday that he is "heading for a brawl" with the House Armed Services Committee over the Defense Department's delay in presenting a 30-year plan to create a 355-ship Navy.
Committee members repeatedly expressed their concerns over proposed cuts to the Navy's shipbuilding plans to Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley at a hearing to discuss the Pentagon's fiscal 2021 budget request.
Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Connecticut, said the proposed 19% cut to shipbuilding is a "punch in the gut" to combatant commands trying to compete with Russian and Chinese naval forces.
"This budget fails the test in terms of the National Defense Strategy, which is focused on our near-peer competitors," Courtney said, pointing out that the "anemic" fiscal 2021 budget plan to build eight ships will mean only five new combat vessels.
One of the ships -- the LPD-31 -- was authorized and funded by Congress last year, Courtney said.
"There is actually only seven -- two of those seven are tugboats, they are salvage ships," he said. "We are in fact then left with five combatant ships."
But the tension in the hearing only increased when Courtney scolded Esper for not submitting a 30-year shipbuilding plan with the proposed fiscal 2021 budget request, which is mandated by law.
"Congress needs headlights to see where you are doing because of the fact that shipbuilding is such a long game," Courtney said. "When are we going to get that 30-year shipbuilding plan?"
Esper told lawmakers that he believes the Navy needs more than 355 ships and more attack submarines, but the 30-year shipbuilding report is simply not ready.
"I haven't seen the 30-year shipbuilding plan; I am awaiting its presentation to me," he said. "Once I have had the chance to review it and digest it and follow up on it ... I will share with you what I believe our future force structure should look like."
Rep. John Garamendi, D-California, told Esper, "You are out of line, sir."
"You should listen very carefully -- you are heading for a major brawl with this committee," he told Esper. "The law is quite clear. When you submit your budget, you are required to submit the shipbuilding plan and for you to say you are going to give it to us on your own good time and when you are ready -- you are not in line with the law."
Lawmakers were also concerned that the Navy plans to build only one Virginia-class submarine in fiscal 2021, a course change from the fiscal 2020 budget that planned for two of the attack submarines.
Courtney said the Navy's current fleet fleet of 52 attack submarines will soon shrink to 44 with the planned retirement of the Los Angeles-class submarines.
Esper agreed that attack subs are an important issue, but so is the service's need to improve its ship maintenance program to prevent the sea service from becoming a hollow Navy.
"I support what the Navy did in terms of moving $4 billion from shipbuilding to maintenance," Esper said.
Over the last five years, 75% of the Navy's surface ships never left maintenance on time and, of that 75%, half of those ships took more than three months to return to sea, Esper said, referring to a recent Government Accountability Office report.
"What that equates to is 19 ships in 2019 were unavailable to go to sea," he said. "I agree we need a 355-ship Navy, but we can't have a hollow Navy at the same time."
In addition to the 30-year shipbuilding plan, the Navy is wrapping up a new force-structure assessment that looks at the types of vessels the service will need over the next decade.
Esper told lawmakers that he was briefed on the Integrated Naval Force Structure Assessment on Friday.
There is also the forthcoming Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) that will produce a plan to get to a 355-plus ship Navy, as well as proposals from think-tank groups that warrant consideration, he said.
"What I want to do is get all these great ideas together ... kind of level-set the playing field and let's run these competing plans to see which one optimizes what we need for the future," Esper said.
"I recognize that we are beyond the date that it was due, but I want to present to you a right plan, a good plan and not just something that was generated up and delivered on time," he said.
-- Matthew Cox can be reached at email@example.com.