Tuesday, April 19, 2005

The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday called on President Bush to increase the Pentagon’s shipbuilding budget to restore a shrinking U.S. Navy fleet.

Sen. John W. Warner, Virginia Republican, whose state produces $4.5 billion nuclear-powered aircraft carriers at Newport News, spoke at the confirmation hearing of Navy Secretary Gordon England to be deputy defense secretary.

?This building situation is going to get turned around,? he said, ?only if a persuasive case is made to the president of the United States that he must direct his budget authorities to begin to include in the Department of Defense budget, earmarked for the United States Navy, those funds sufficient to turn this curve around and once again restore America to its pre-eminence in naval shipbuilding.?

Mr. England’s shipbuilding budget for next year provides money for just four new ships. The fleet has dipped to 288 surface vessels and submarines. In the late 1980s, it reached nearly 600. Budget documents predict the fleet will reverse course and grow to 305 ships in 2011. But industry officials are skeptical the fleet will reach 300 again.

Mr. England placed part of the blame on inflation in the cost of weapons.

?The most I can tell you is, I will be very open,? Mr. England said. ?I’ll work with the Congress and with the industry and approach this problem, because it is a problem. Our cost in every single weapons system is going up dramatically.?

Mr. England’s confirmation hearing is part of a transition in Navy leadership. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has been mulling candidates to replace Mr. England, and Adm. Michael Mullen underwent a confirmation hearing yesterday as the successor to Adm. Vern Clark, chief of naval operations.

?The thought of having less ships in the Navy than at any time in the last 100 years in an era when we are facing a challenge, I don’t say a threat, but a challenge in the emerging superpower in Asia, is something that I think should concern all of us,? said Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican.

Mr. England has angered some senators further by changing the rules for buying the DD(X), the Navy’s next-generation destroyer. The plan had been to split the buy between Northrop Grumman in Mississippi and Bath Iron Works in Maine. But the plan now is a winner-take-all competition. Bath faces a shutdown if it does not win, industry sources said.

The Navy budget also calls for one less operational aircraft carrier, from 12 to 11.

Sen. Susan Collins, Maine Republican, said the shipbuilding budget has dropped from $10.4 billion in 2004 to $8.7 billion in the fiscal 2006 request.

?Is the Navy sacrificing an American shipyard, knowing that it could do this work and introduce competition eventually by using foreign sources?? Miss Collins asked.

Mr. England denied the Navy is talking to foreign yards and noted that although procurement money has declined, funds for research on future ships like DD(X) are climbing.

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