- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 27, 2020

The U.S. Navy’s top civilian official is pushing back on the Trump administration’s latest game of tug-of-war with Congress over moves to divert Pentagon funds to pay for a Mexican border wall and nuclear modernization.

Acting U.S. Navy Secretary Thomas Modly told the House Armed Services Committee Thursday that any shipbuilding funding that would be sidelined for other programs will hinder the service’s mission to achieve a 355-ship fleet.

“To be frank, it’s not helpful because it takes a ship out of a plan we’re driving toward,” Mr. Modly explained.

“It particularly is harmful in the sense that it takes a ship out of a category … for which we’re going to have a hard time getting to anyway,” he continued, referencing the Virginia-class submarine.

Lawmakers have become increasingly critical of delays in the Navy’s program to rebuild the fleet. Mr. Modly, who has served as acting Navy secretary since November, said that while the proposed budget cuts do “slow our trajectory” to a hoped-for 355-ship fleet, “it does not arrest it.”

“You have my personal assurance that we are so deeply committed to building that larger, more capable, more distributed naval force within what I consider a strategically relevant time frame of no more than 10 years,” he said.

Cuts to maintenance and modernization programs have sparked an intense backlash from lawmakers in recent days, most notably the Navy’s budget request that allocates nearly $20 billion for just eight new ships — but not all of which can be used in combat.

Navy officials have repeatedly insisted that their target is a fleet of 355 ships to preserve readiness, but the existing budget deviates from the 2020 authorization that approved funding for 12 new ships. The service currently has a 295 deployable battle fleet.

Adm. Michael Gilday, chief of naval operations, told the House panel a $4 billion cut to shipbuilding funds compared to the 2020 allocation “happened at budget endgame very quickly.” Neither he nor Mr. Modly was informed of the last-minute shift.

Two weeks prior, the White House announced plans to tap another $3.8 billion from Pentagon accounts to build President Trump’s border wall, bringing the total amount of money redirected from the Defense Department to $10 billion over two years.

In a bipartisan show of force, the Democratic and Republican leaders of the committee have slammed the reprogramming of Defense Department funds and are eyeing ways to “claw back” the money.

Speaking to reporters Thursday, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, Washington state Democrat, said it’s become clear that the move to reprogram funds was carried out without the support of the Pentagon.

“This was a White House-driven move that the Pentagon is deeply troubled by,” he said.

Mr. Smith said he has been in communication with Republicans on a bill demanding the administration to essentially “put back” the diverted funds to their intended projects.

“Time is of the essence,” Mr. Smith said.

But as for the Navy’s fleet goals, the chairman said achieving 355 ships is “almost meaningless at this point” as projects and funding continue to be pushed.

“It is great to have goals, I suppose, and we can aspire toward that number,” Mr. Smith said during the hearing, “but at this point, it seems like just that — an aspiration doesn’t translate necessarily into a strategy.”

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