Then-Republican presidential candidate former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, right, and vice presidential candidate Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., wave at the crowd during a campaign event Aug. 11 in Norfolk, Va. Romney's defense adviser envisions a Navy of 350 ships. (Mary Altaffer / AP)
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Mitt Romney's campaign has steered clear of providing many specifics when it comes to how he would govern as president.
Defense has been no exception. While Romney and other campaign officials have pledged to raise the number of ships built per year from nine to "approximately 15," aimed at a fleet of about 350 ships, specifics on what ships would be added have been vague.
But in an exclusive interview, Romney's defense adviser provided tantalizing details on the ambitious plan for the Navy.
John Lehman, President Reagan's 600-ship-era Navy secretary and one of the architects of Romney's plans for the military, sat down with Navy Times last week.
Among the details he revealed: There are plans to create an 11th carrier air wing, one for each aircraft carrier. F/A-18 Super Hornet strike fighter production would continue beyond 2014. The amphibious fleet would be built up to the Marine Corps requirement of 39 ships. An entirely new, battle-group-deployable frigate would be procured, along with a ballistic-missile defense ship.
The campaign has pledged to build more submarines and destroyers, and production of the littoral combat ship would continue. Exact numbers of ships and aircraft continue to be reviewed, and Lehman made clear the program continues to be evaluated and fleshed out.
Excerpts from the interview, edited for space and clarity:
Q. What is your projected fleet size?
A. Three-hundred fifty is the plan of record. This is what the governor is currently campaigning on. Fifteen ships per year, 350 ships in 10 years.
Q. What would you be adding?
A. First, we'd continue the littoral combat ship, and we'd begin a battle group-deployable frigate program that would replace the FFG 7s [Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates]. And we would increase the numbers per year of the destroyers, and we would go for a missile-defense ship that is optimized using an existing hull form, for the new Air and Missile Defense Radar, which really won't fit in the existing Arleigh Burke class.
We would also include getting up to the accepted requirement for Marine amphibious lift, so there'd be an increase in amphibious ships. The exact mix as between the different types, whether we go all for the LSD [dock landing ship] versus the LHA+ [new assault ship] or some other mix, that hasn't been fully fleshed out yet. But there will be an increase in amphibs.
Q. Would your missile-defense ship be based on the DDG 1000 design?
A. There's also the LPD 17 [San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock] hull design. I didn't say missile-defense destroyer, I said missile-defense ship, because to have the kind of power aperture needed for the new radar, there is always a conflict between a deployable battle group ship and a missile-defense ship. The latter is in elevated [readiness condition], tied to a specific area. It can't deploy with the battle group.
To make it affordable, you have to have a hull that's not a brand-new ship, so it really comes down to between a DDG 1000 [Zumwalt-class destroyer] and an LPD 17. Both hulls and power capability are quite suitable for the missile-defense ship.
The basic hull and volume in the LPD 17 can take both the larger missiles and the radar, so the optimal power plant is not the one that's in it. It would probably be a diesel-based, maybe [combined diesel and gas turbine], or something like that. But that hasn't been detailed.
Q. There's no current Navy requirement for a fleet frigate.
A. The LCS has many useful roles, but one of them is not deploying with the battle groups. It doesn't have the range. What is needed is a replacement for the FFG 7. There's a clear need, because the LCS is not able to fill the roles originally envisioned for it. It has some real uses, but one of them is not as a fleet deployer, not as a battle group deployer.
Q. This would be a new design, or an adoption of an existing design?
A. I think there will be examination of both existing hull forms and design aspects, to try and find the best in class in each of the elements — propulsion, hull and engineering, the weapons systems. Whether that ends up being a new design or an adaptation of another frigate, we're not that far along.
It won't be a regional air defense [ship]. It will have self-defense capability and network ability to be part of the networked environment of the battle group. It won't necessarily be a full Aegis system.
But it has to be affordable. All of them have to be able to be competed. It's going back to the Reagan approach of having at least two sources for everything.
It would be able to be competed yearly, as we did in the Reagan years, with the submarines, frigates, destroyers and cruisers. They were all annual competitions; it's what brought the cost down.
Q. Would you review the LCS program?
A. I'll always be reviewing it, but there's no intention to cancel it.
Q. Are you committed to retaining 11 aircraft carriers?
A. Right now 11 carriers is part of the plan, but also with 11 air wings. We'd have an air wing for every carrier. And we would almost immediately reverse the Obama decision to stop production of the F/A-18 Super Hornet in 2014. We think it's essential to keep the F-18s in production, as well as the F-35.
The actual mix of F-35s and F-18s on the air wings is something that will be looked at carefully.
Q. One carrier is always in a long-term refueling overhaul. What would you do with that extra wing?
A. We would go back to keeping a reserve wing fully modernized with the same equipment as an active air wing. And the ability to surge and get whatever carrier that's in overhaul out quickly — and there's nothing written in stone that a refueling overhaul has to take four years. … You can't just throw together an air wing like that. The principal is we would have an air wing for every deck.
Q. Would you bring forward the fighter replacement programmed now in the late 2020s?
A. One of the top priorities of the Romney program is to fundamentally change and fix the procurement mess. We used to be able to bring complex systems from initiation to deployment in seven years. Essentially the F-16 only took about seven years. Polaris and Minuteman only took four years. And in those days, with comparatively primitive technology, there were far more complex challenges to integrate systems than even the F-22 today. F-22 took 22 years.
In fact, according to the Defense Business Board, the average for the Department of Defense is 22 years. Well, that's crazy.
Part of it is the lack of discipline in requirements, requirements being added all the time.
After the first ship [of the Arleigh Burke class], we froze the design, and there were no more change orders unless it was life-threatening. There were constant attempts by DoD and parts of the Navy to add new bells and whistles and capabilities, more new systems. Part of the Navy really wanted hangars on them, and we said no, we're not going to do any changes.
At that time every F-14 in the fleet was different. Change orders flowed in to the production without discipline. Every single F-14 had to have its own full record of its systems. No two were alike.
That's the extreme of the indiscipline if you don't have a real firm grip on basic changes. And all that has been lost in the last 20 years or so. So that can bring the prices way down.
Q. Would you make any changes in the procurement of the F-35 joint strike fighter?
A. At this point it's not possible to say. A lot is going to depend on whether they get the costs under control, particularly the fly-away costs.
That's why it's so essential to keep the Super Hornets in production so the mix can be flexed depending on how the F-35 actually pans out.
Q. The Navy has reduced its active-duty personnel force to about 321,000. Would you reverse the decline? If so, how high would you go to man those 350 ships?
A. The Navy and the Air Force have taken far deeper cuts than I think is prudent in the number of operational people. I think they're undermanning the ships. With the battle groups deploying for nine months now, almost back-to-back deployments, they're short now and they're going to get shorter when we see attrition.
All of the services have had a gross distortion put in, because they have to man their share of so many of these new [joint task forces] that have been created, more for bureaucratic reasons. There are now 250 joint task forces, and they all require uniformed manning from all the services. Most of that is driven by Goldwater-Nichols, because you had to create joint billets so that every officer could get their four years on a joint staff.
And the Joint Staff itself in the Pentagon is, according to the Defense Business Board, almost three times the size of what it was during the Reagan administration, with half the size of the force.
So there's been this bureaucratic bloat, not driven by intention, but by the fact that all these new offices are created in [the Pentagon] and in the combatant commands and the functional commands. … So that needs to really have a real serious scrub, and those billets freed up for our operational sailors.
Q. So first, you'd be looking at reallocating existing personnel?
A. Absolutely. How much of that can provide additional manning? We'll see. But the ships have to be manned to their effective readiness level. Not necessarily at a wartime level, but to a deployable level, so that you're not letting the ships deteriorate and not making life so unpleasant for the sailors at sea because they have to do two people's work at sea.
So what that means in end strength for the Air Force and the Navy is a little hard to say at this point.
Q. Would you be cutting flag and general officers?
A. Part of the reason for the number of flag officers is the artificial creation of all these joint task forces and requirements offices. All the new bureaucracy that's been created over the years that is pure overhead. You've got to eliminate that before you size the number of flags you have.
There will be no hesitation to cut flags if that is what is needed. And my guess is it probably will be needed in all the services.
Q. You'll need a bigger budget to pay for all these ships and people. How much bigger?
A. I wouldn't put a number on it until we see what kind of — we're not talking about we're going to run faster, jump higher, be more efficient. We're talking about fundamentally changing the method of doing business.
This is something the governor, as a businessman, feels very strongly about, and I do too. In fact, everybody on our defense advisory group feels the same, that there's just a huge amount of bloat that has developed over the years.