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SNA: Sen Collins' shipbuilding showdown

The Navy brass sees its littoral combat ship as the cornerstone for the future of the surface force, but Maine Sen. Susan Collins made clear Wednesday that view is not universal.

The Senate Armed Services Committee Republican told the Surface Navy Association that the strategic realities of the 21st century, reinforced by DoD’s brand-new strategic guidance, call not for a large number of fun-size warships, but medium numbers of full-size, full-spectrum combatants. Which, she didn’t need to add, should be built at her home-state Bath Iron Works shipyard.

“As many of the Navy’s uniformed and civilian leaders have said over and over again, ‘At some point, quantity has a quality all its own,’” Collins repeated, before making a wry aside about how that ubiquitous Big Navy talking point was originally coined by Stalin.

But she warned that North Korean instability, Chinese bullying in the South China Sea, and other strategic imperatives in the 21st century mean the Navy needs to think clearly about how best to respond. Collins never said the words “littoral combat ship,” but the message came through clearly:

“Building a large number of ships with limited combat capability at the expense of ships of higher capability could well be a Pyrrhic victory,” she said. Collins pointed out that the Navy’s own shipbuilding plan even admits that it will only meet its required number of surface combatants in seven of the next 30 years. “This concerns me greatly,” she said.

“At its worst, cruisers and destroyers will be 25 percent below the required number, making this shortfall longest of any class of ships. If this administration is committed to maintaining high-end combat capability, this shortfall must be significantly mitigated -- or better yet, eliminated -- in the future plans.”

Collins and her shipbuilding caucus colleagues have asked the Navy for an explanation of how it’s going to deal with its cruiser and destroyer shortfall as part of next month’s budget. If the Navy doesn’t play ball – sometimes, the service just doesn’t submit plans or documents Congress requests – lawmakers might get cranky, Collins warned.

“The longer Congress has to wait for a plan to address the gap, the more questions will be asked about validity of the 94 ship requirement” – the Navy’s goal for surface combatants. “To put it plainly, if 94 ships is the minimum, how many ships do we have to be short of that goal before someone in the Navy or at the Pentagon sounds the alarm that the risk for our country’s security has reached a redline?” Collins asked.

This problem is only compounded by the new strategic guidance, she concluded: “Maintenance of a high-end naval combat capabilities – ballistic missile defense, open-ocean anti-submarine warfare and strike missions -- makes perfect sense when framed in context of [the strategy’s] commitment to refocusing on the Asia-Pacific as the region of highest strategic priority.”

And that means destroyers – either the restarted Arleigh Burke class or the three-ship Zumwalt class. But even though Collins said she was pleased that Navy shipbuilding was growing as compared to previous years, with the possibility for 11 new starts per year over the next four years, the budget squeeze and congressional gridlock could throw “a monkey wrench” in acquisitions.

She was asked specifically about the prospects for this year’s legislative session, and her answer brought down the house.

“Remember that song ‘I’ve got high hopes?’” she said. “Well I don’t … I’m going to do my best, but if last year was prologue, it’s going to be very tough.”

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