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Navy Short on Shipbuilding Funds

The Navy needs to make Oliver Twist a senior budget official because it needs to ask: "Please, sir, may I have some more?"

That's the essence of comments made by a Congressional Research Service defense expert who said the Navy's reluctance to push for significantly higher budgets in coming years may give lawmakers the wrong view of Navy needs.

This, in spite of the fact the Navy is facing recapitalization needs aren't very different from those of the Air Force -- which has been up front about needing an additional $20 billion a year for the next five years.

"The Navy has been avoiding asking for an increase," said Ron O'Rourke, a national defense specialist at CRS. "If one [branch] is vocal about the need for an increase and another is not, policy lawmakers can develop an imbalanced understanding of funding needs for the services."

What some lawmakers have seen of the Navy's long-range plans has generated skepticism. Some lawmakers, including key members on the House Appropriations and Armed Services subcommittees, have put more faith in Congressional Budget Office fiscal estimates than in the Navy's. That's led some influential lawmakers to consider altering the Navy's ship procurement plans.

On Capitol Hill, O'Rourke told attendees of the Sea-Air-Space expo in Washington, D.C., there has been strong criticism of the Navy's inability to follow its 30-year shipbuilding plan since the service isn't requesting the budget increases that officials believe are necessary to execute the plan on time.

For example, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee's defense panel, Rep. John Murtha (D-PA), cited the discrepancy between what CBO researchers say the Navy needs to meet its 313-ship fleet in 30 years and what the service proposed in its 2009 budget: The CBO said the Navy would need to spend about $20 billion a year on new ship construction to meet the plan. But the fiscal '09 budget includes just $14.1 billion for ship construction.

O'Rourke also referred listeners to March 14 comments made by Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.) chairman of the Seapower and Expeditionary Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, to best capture the sense that lawmakers have of the Navy's shipbuilding plans.

"Dismissed as pure fantasy," O'Rourke said. Taylor is a strong backer of Navy programs but is well known for his plain speaking and hard-hitting logic, Hill observers say.

"It [the plan] is totally unaffordable with the resources the Department of Defense allocates to the Navy for ship construction," Taylor said in his March 14 comments. The Navy, he continued, admitted in its annual long-rage report on shipbuilding that it does not have the funding to construct the vessels it will need in the years beyond 2020.

Taylor panned the Navy for its plans to cancel ships that are being built on time -- the LPD 17 class amphibious assault ship, Arleigh Burke class destroyers, Virginia class submarines and T-AKE Dry Cargo Ammunition ships -- in order to go forward with additional Littoral Combat Ships, which are behind schedule and over cost.

According to O'Rourke, members on the armed services committee and the powerful appropriations committee both are considering pushing for changes in what the Navy buys, believing they have a better handle on Navy needs than the sea service's leadership.

-- Bryant Jordan

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