Monday, October 17, 2005

Navy's Top Officer Calls For More Shipbuilding

The top uniformed officer in the Navy said this week that he is committed to start rebuilding a fleet that has shrunk by more than 50 percent in 15 years, to 282 ships today.
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Mullen speaks to sailors at the Naval Submarine Base in Groton last month. Mullen said then that he hopes to be able to get two new submarines built per year. And earlier this week, Mullen said he is committed to start rebuilding a fleet that has shrunk by more than 50 percent in 15 years.
“Four (new) ships in the '06 budget on the Hill is as low as we've been, and I'm not anxious to stay there,” said Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael G. Mullen. Building four ships a year with an average 30-year life would lead to a fleet of 120. Mullen said in an interview that his staff has finished a shipbuilding study that he ordered after he took office in July. He said he has a good understanding of the requirements and capabilities that the Navy needs, but he added, “I'm not prepared to talk in detail on that today because of where we are in the process.” The Department of Defense is in the middle of a top-to-bottom defense review that is done every four years, and the outcome of that study could change the numbers. Mullen also pledged to carry out the directives of the 2005 Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission if they become law as expected next month, despite the commission's decision to overturn two key Navy recommendations by taking the Naval Submarine Base in Groton and the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine, off the closure list. Groton, he said, “is a very important base, and we will do the very best we can by Groton, and all the bases,” Mullen said. But it means the Navy won't whittle away much at the 20 to 25 percent excess base capacity it had going into the base closure process, so the service will have to look elsewhere for savings to recapitalize its fleet. On Friday, Mullen released his “CNO Guidance for 2006,” which devotes an unusual amount of attention to the shipbuilding industry. He discussed many of his goals in a teleconference from his office in the Pentagon. His predecessor released the annual guidance in January, but Mullen said he wanted its release to correlate more closely with the federal fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1 — and Thursday, he noted, was the anniversary of the establishment of the Navy by the Continental Congress in 1775. Although he did not specifically address the number of submarines he wants in the fleet, Mullen has in the past said he supports boosting production from one to two submarines a year as soon as possible, but he contends the cost must come down. But Mullen said having a firm fleet plan and a stable building program are key to bringing the cost down. Shipbuilders are paying huge premiums for the inconsistency in the shipbuilding program in recent years, he said. The only area of the fleet where Mullen signaled his intention was aircraft carriers. For many years the Navy has said it cannot have fewer than 12 carriers to meet overseas presence requirements, but this year the Navy has said it could get by with 11, and Mullen agreed. Mullen said he continues to support the DDX next-generation destroyer and the CVNX next-generation carrier programs, despite mounting costs, because they represent breakthrough technology. And he held out a lot of hope for the Littoral Combat Ship, or LCS, planned as a speedy, agile near-shore warship that could be produced in large numbers at low cost. Two prototypes are under construction. “You can't get LCS in the water fast enough,” Mullen said. “We're planning on populating the fleet with a number of them as fast as possible.” In 1990, the Navy fleet comprised 574 ships, but it has slipped every year since then, and as it has dropped the service has consistently reduced its force structure plan. At one point, for instance, the Navy said it needed at least 360 ships, and when it dropped below that the target changed to 345, and continued to ratchet down. In recent years Navy leadership has declined to set a goal for the size of the fleet, but Mullen said he wants a definite goal for the size of the fleet to bring some predictability back to the shipbuilding industry. His goal, he said, is “to build good ships and reduce costs,” and if he can put shipbuilding back on a firmer footing it would be up to industry to find ways to drive costs out of the process.

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