The U.S. Navy will boost its presence in the Asia-Pacific region over the next decade even amid reduced defense spending that has created a "fog bank" of uncertainty, the Navy's top officer said.
The Navy plans to have 114 ships sailing worldwide by fiscal 2020, up from 101 today, including 62 ships in the Asia-Pacific, up from 54 today, Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations, said today at the Sea-Air-Space exposition. Meanwhile, the overall size of the fleet will rise to 295 ships, up from 283 ships, he said.
Greenert, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos and Coast Guard Vice Adm. John Currier kicked off the three-day conference at National Harbor, Md., organized by the Navy League, with the annual service chiefs update.
"Our Navy has got to be present where it matters," said Greenert, who will be traveling to the region next week. "As we re-balance toward the Asia-Pacific, that will continue."
The Defense Department faces $1 trillion in cuts over the next decade under deficit-reduction legislation passed in 2011. Half of that amount, about $500 billion, will come from automatic, across-the-board cuts — unless Congress and the White House agree to an alternative spending plan.
The Republican-controlled House and Democrat-controlled Senate have approved competing budgets and remain at an impasse over taxes and spending. Lawmakers allowed the automatic cuts — designed to be so painful they would compel both parties to strike a deal — to take effect March 1. The cuts will slice about $41 billion from the Pentagon’s budget in the remaining half of fiscal 2013, which ends Sept. 30.
"We've been rigged for reduced visibility," Greenert said. "This budget situation is like being in a fog bank."
The Navy is grappling with about a $10 billion shortfall this year under the reductions, including $6 billion from investment accounts and $4 billion from operation and maintenance funds, Greenert said. The service must prioritize accounts to make the best use of limited funds, he said.
"Warfighting is first," Greenert said. "We need to operate forward and we need to be ready."
The Defense Department spends far too much on overhead, which is impacting its ability to buy weapons and develop technology, according to John Lehman, a former secretary of the Navy. Even with sequestration, the Pentagon is spending more now -- once adjusting for inflation -- than during the height of the Cold War, yet building less than half as many ships and aircraft, he said.
"This is a real crisis because gradually we have lost the common-sense accountability that won the Cold War," said Lehman, who was Navy secretary during the Reagan administration and a national-security adviser to former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
The military leaders agreed. Marine Corps Commandant General James Amos called the weapons acquisition process "constipated" and said "we need to fix it."
Amos touted the potential of the newest amphibious warships and called the MV-22 Osprey title-rotor aircraft and the F-35 fighter aircraft as game changers. Despite the controversy and struggles surrounding the F-35 program, Amos said he remains bullish saying it has performed well recently.
The drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan will create "plenty of opportunity" to deploy troops to other parts of the world, including South Korea, Amos said.
Countries like North Korea, which is threatening attacks against the South, provide "no sense of stability," he said. "There are and there will be these types of issues that our nation is going to have to face."