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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