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Merkel, Obama on Friendship

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June 7, 2011, 10:40 a.m.

A Pub­lic Policy Polling (D) (IVR) poll; con­duc­ted 9/30-10/2; sur­veyed 834 LVs; mar­gin of er­ror +/- 3.4% (re­lease, 10/5). Party ID break­down: 37%R, 36%D, 27%I.

Ritter As Gov.

- RVs RVs RVs - All Dem GOP Ind Men Wom 8/8 5/16 3/8 Ap­prove 38% 68% 8% 37% 33% 42% 33% 34% 38% Dis­ap­prove 49 18 81 44 54 43 50 52 50

(For more from this poll, please see today’s CO GOV story.)

NA­TION­AL HAR­BOR, Mary­land — How many ships does the Navy need?

That de­pends on whom you ask, but top Navy of­fi­cials ar­gued be­fore the nav­al com­munity’s biggest an­nu­al con­fer­ence this week that the mod­ern 300-ship fleet the Pentagon wants by 2020 will be just as cap­able and power­ful as Re­agan-era fleets twice as large.

What the U.S. needs, ar­gued Navy Sec­ret­ary Ray Mabus, was “enough of the right kind of ships to do the mis­sions as­signed,” in a Wed­nes­day speech to the Navy League’s Sea-Air-Space expo.

There’s a reas­on he left a num­ber out of that phrase. The size of the Navy has long been a de­bate pop­u­lated by ad­mir­als and petty of­ficers, ship­build­ers and sup­pli­ers, hawks and doves, and every mil­it­ary blog­ger with a key­board. But try find­ing 10 true be­liev­ers in that crew for the “right” num­ber of Navy ships and you’ll find 10 dif­fer­ent re­li­gions.

The Navy has fluc­tu­ated between hav­ing a few hun­dred ships and the roughly 7,000-ship fleet at the height of World War II. For the past six years, the Navy has en­dorsed grow­ing to a 313-ship fleet but struggled to meet that goal amid rising costs and shrink­ing budgets. The num­ber “313” be­came a pier-side talk­ing point, de­tached from oth­er factors such as in­creased fire­power, joint war-fight­ing along­side the Air Force and oth­er ser­vices, and glob­al de­ploy­ment op­tions.

“It’s good short­hand for an easy de­bate,” said Dav­id J. Ber­teau, dir­ect­or of the in­ter­na­tion­al se­cur­ity pro­gram at the non­par­tis­an Cen­ter for Stra­tegic and In­ter­na­tion­al Stud­ies. He re­called the fight over a 600-ship fleet cham­pioned by Pres­id­ent Re­agan’s tough-talk­ing Navy sec­ret­ary, John Leh­man. The num­ber only got to 594.

But num­bers do mat­ter more to the Navy than oth­er ser­vices, Ber­teau ar­gues, be­cause it must re­main for­ward-de­ployed to be use­ful on short no­tice, and ships can move only so fast. The Air Force flies non­stop from the U.S. to Afgh­anistan, re­fuel­ing in flight. The Army in­her­ently takes longer to move; it would be im­possible to po­s­i­tion thou­sands of tanks on every con­tin­ent.

Chief of Nav­al Op­er­a­tions Jonath­an Green­ert said on Monday that the Navy cur­rently has 282 ships. Ship count­ing alone, however, is mean­ing­less. The Navy has oth­er budget­ary pri­or­it­ies — its people, for one — and it wants to save money by keep­ing more ships de­ployed for longer cycles, de­pend­ing on res­pites at friendly places like Singa­pore and Diego Gar­cia.

Still, in Janu­ary, the Pentagon re­duced the num­ber of ships to be built in the next five years from 57 to 41 ves­sels, caus­ing alarm among ana­lysts and ship­build­ers. “How many ships do we need to im­ple­ment the na­tion­al strategy of today? That’s the only ques­tion that should both­er us,” ar­gued Navy Un­der­sec­ret­ary Robert Work, the branch’s ac­quis­i­tions chief, while on a fea­tured pan­el at the con­ven­tion. Work agreed with the pro­pos­i­tion that, with just 300 mod­ern ships, the U.S. today would re­tain “90 per­cent of the com­bat power” held by the 600-ship Navy of the 1980s.

Dur­ing this peri­od of budget un­cer­tainty, con­tract­ors are guess­ing what Con­gress might do. “If we lose fund­ing, or that fund­ing is in­ter­rup­ted by a num­ber of years, we run the risk of los­ing those em­ploy­ees,” said Timothy McGee, a mil­it­ary-busi­ness de­vel­op­ment man­ager for Ex­lar Corp., which builds ac­tu­at­ors that will move the weapons el­ev­at­or on the next air­craft car­ri­er, the USS Ger­ald Ford. “We need to plan for what hap­pens next.”

Can hawks get more ships built than the pres­id­ent wants? Rep. Robert Wittman, R-Va., chair­man of the House Armed Ser­vices Sub­com­mit­tee on Over­sight and In­vest­ig­a­tions, main­tained in a hear­ing this week that “every” top-rank­ing Pa­cific nav­al of­ficer he met says that main­tain­ing a high-tempo pres­ence over­seas “keeps him up at night.”¦ Where gaps ex­ist, oth­er coun­tries such as Ir­an and China will fill the voids.”

The “short­falls” in Pres­id­ent Obama’s re­quest, Wittman ar­gued, would leave the U.S. “short” of the num­ber of at­tack sub­mar­ines, large sur­face com­bat ships, and am­phi­bi­ous-war­fare ships “we need.”

Find­ing the right num­ber of ships will re­main elu­sive. In­deed, Vice Adm. Wil­li­am Burke, deputy chief of nav­al op­er­a­tions for fleet read­i­ness and lo­gist­ics, test­i­fied last month that the Navy ideally would need 500 ships. House Armed Ser­vices Chair­man Buck McK­eon, R-Cal­if., has talked about ex­ceed­ing 700 ships, but doesn’t of­fer a pre­ferred num­ber for today’s Navy.

Work notes that form­al fleet re­views since the 1980s have called for num­bers between 308 and 313. As cap­ab­il­it­ies grew, Navy re­quire­ments have re­mained “sur­pris­ingly con­stant.” So has the ca­pa­city of Wash­ing­ton to keep play­ing the num­bers game.

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