The Obama Administration has requested $156 billion in funding for the Navy in the fiscal year that began October 1. That’s a $10 billion reduction from what the White House sought in the prior fiscal year, but still more than any other nation spends on its entire defense establishment (China’s official military budget is a bit over $100 billion). Now comes Romney defense advisor John F. Lehman with plans to greatly expand naval expenditures, probably to around $200 billion annually by the end of the next presidential term. The details of the Romney plan, which former Navy Secretary Lehman played a major part in crafting, are laid out this week in an exclusive interview with Christopher P. Cavas of Defense News.
Lehman does not question the foundations of the current Navy force structure. He simply proposes to add to it by expanding the size of the fleet from less than 300 warships today to about 350 in ten years. This would be accomplished by increasing the pace of shipbuilding over 50% — from around nine warships annually in the Obama plan to 15 each year. Among the areas where he would increase efforts:
1. The number of amphibious ships supporting Marine expeditionary warfare operations would be increased by a third, to 39.
2. A new missile-defense ship would be developed based on the hull design of the LPD-17 amphibious vessel or the canceled DDG-1000 destroyer.
3. A new frigate program would be initiated, but the Littoral Combat ship conceived to replace frigates in shallow-water operations would continue.
4. Enough submarines and destroyers would be purchased to sustain competitive annual buys, which means funding shipyards to maintain all the necessary skills.
5. The number of large-deck aircraft carriers would be held steady at 11, but one additional air wing would be formed to provide a surge reserve.
Lehman says Romney would also keep the F/A-18 Super Hornet multi-role fighter in production rather than closing the line in 2014 as the next-generation F-35C fighter ramps up to serial production. And Romney would increase the number of sailors in the active-duty force available for deployments in the expanded fleet. Lehman proposed a series of steps in the interview to cover increased costs, including early stabilization of engineering requirements, cutbacks in unneeded staff, and greater reliance on competition to discipline pricing.
Such steps would barely begin to cover all the increased costs entailed by the plan that Lehman describes. For instance, the amphibious fleet has never expanded to the ideal number of ships specified by the Marine Corps because even at the height of the Bush defense buildup, there wasn’t enough money available to get there. Similarly, the Navy canceled both the DDG-1000 destroyer and the “CG-X” missile-defense cruiser because they were deemed unaffordable within projected budgets. As for fostering annual competitions in naval ship construction, that would necessarily require much greater investment in shipyard infrastructure and skills to get beyond the division of labor now favored in building vessels such as the Virginia-class attack sub.
Given the fact that future federal budgets are expected to be deeply in deficit, the Romney plan would appear to require borrowing additional money from China to field a Navy capable of more effectively thwarting Chinese military goals in the Western Pacific. That’s the stark tradeoff that Governor Romney posed in last week’s presidential debate, and it makes his ambitious plans for the Navy seem both paradoxical and improbable.
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