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The 95,000-ton elephant in the room

Has the Obama administration put the Navy's future aircraft carriers on Washington's proverbial "table" as part of the high-stakes, long-term budget negotiations?

"Your guess on that is as good as mine," said Virginia Rep. Randy Forbes, the Republican chair of the House Armed Services Committee's readiness subcommittee. But Forbes warns that where there's smoke, there could be fire: "We know that there have been these rumors circulating out there, which they didn’t deny, and they told us they’re going to give us confirmation on that. They've already stretched the carrier build time to five years, so they could stretch it to seven years, or they may be thinking of doing away with one of the carriers altogether ... Nobody came back and said, 'oh we’re not going to do that unless we do a threat assessment' -- it sounded to me like an acknowledgement that, yep, we can put that on the table."

"They" were two top Navy officials, Vice Adm. Bill Burke and Vice Adm. Kevin McCoy, who appeared Tuesday before Forbes' committee to talk about the Navy's plans to reverse the degradation of its surface fleet. Admirals and generals don't like to step "outside their lane" -- least of all when talking to Congress -- so neither witness responded to Forbes' questions about carriers. But they also didn't say, 'Give up one or more carriers? No frickin' way, bro!"

Forbes and other Virginia lawmakers have a huge stake in whatever happens on this carrier question -- billions of dollars and thousands of jobs in Hampton Roads depend on Navy shipbuilding . But if the Pentagon or the White House think that delaying or deleting future ships can make the numbers work out in a deal with Republicans, they might hold their noses and make that deal, given all the unique implications here:

Huntington Ingalls Industries' Newport News Shipbuilding is the only yard in the country that can build nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, and although it would be hurt by delays or cancellations in new aircraft carriers, it would not close. The yard also builds submarines, and does the refueling and complex overhauls on the Navy's existing carriers, halfway through their service lives. If the Navy changed its long-term carrier plans as part of a budget deal, and then America becomes prosperous again in a few years, DoD could try to change its shipbuilding program back again, betting that Newport News could survive the interim and then get back to full steam building supercarriers.

How would Congress respond to such a proposal? In short, it would go bonkers, as would the many devotees of aircraft carriers whose legendary ferocity has helped safeguard the big ships from budgeteers for so long. But in Austerity America, there are no good choices, and you could even argue that the Navy would be getting a good deal, since it would keep its existing carriers and air wings, rather than losing those too. The fleet would have to stretch the units it has even more, but the U.S. wouldn't lose much of its ability to project power.

All or none of this could be real, and people always talk about carrier cuts as a possibility around budget time -- for years, many Navy-watchers were convinced that then-Secretary Gates would support big fleet reductions after he questioned the need for 11 carriers. But it never happened. The question today is whether this is just another scare or whether the dire U.S. fiscal situation means it's a serious possibility.

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