San Diego Union Tribune

February 18, 2005

Shrinking Navy fleet concerns lawmakers

By Otto Kreisher

WASHINGTON – The Navy got into a scrap with some of its friends yesterday over how many ships the nation needs.

At a budget hearing, pro-Navy members of the House Armed Services Committee complained to top Navy officials over the reduced number of ships the Navy intends to build and its plans to retire one of its 12 aircraft carriers. The proposed 2006 defense budget would build only four ships, the fewest in decades, for a fleet that already is the smallest since the 1920s.

Navy Secretary Gordon England and Adm. Vern Clark, the chief of naval operations, argued that the increased capability of their ships make a smaller fleet acceptable.

The outcome of the fight will affect San Diego both in the number of ships and sailors based there and in possible future business for National Steel and Shipbuilding Co. One ship NASSCO expected to build has been dropped.

Reps. Duncan Hunter, R-El Cajon, and Ike Skelton, D-Mo., the chairman and top minority member of the committee, voiced opposition in their opening statements.

While praising the warships the Navy intends to buy, Hunter said, "I do have some concerns with this budget request, in particular the decreased shipbuilding rate and overall reduction in the size of the fleet. If we do not carefully balance our shipbuilding rates with our production capabilities, our industrial base may lose the ability to meet the Navy's requirements."

Skelton, who does not have a shipyard or Navy base anywhere near his district, noted the fleet was down to 289 ships and asked: "Whatever happened to (President) Ronald Reagan's 600-ship Navy" or the latest defense review's requirement for 310 ships?

"I understand the huge increase in capability, but we know that presence is often more important than capability," Skelton added. "And the oceans have not gotten any smaller."

Precision munitions and more capable aircraft have given each carriers much more combat power, Clark said, while conceding that fewer carriers would be available for any future conflict.

England made the same increased capabilities argument for the surface warships and submarines. "Numbers are important, but in my four years (as secretary) the trend has been to go to capabilities. . . . That's the trade-off we make every year," he said.

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