Does the Navy stand behind its requirement for a 355-ship fleet?

Navy Secretary Richard Spencer and Admiral John Richardson, the Chief of Naval Operations, certainly do. But Acting Undersecretary Thomas Dee, an Obama holdover, recently threw a wet blanket on the requirement, saying 355 ships is probably out of reach until the 2050s. In his comments, Mr. Dee took a line from the Rolling Stones, elaborating that “You can’t always get what you want.”

One would hope that senior Navy officials know the second part of that Rolling Stones refrain: “But if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.”

Yes, shipbuilding is a long process and a 355-ship fleet will not happen overnight. But Mr. Dee’s pessimism about the Navy’s own requirement is disappointing, when it is incumbent on the Navy to develop fleet buildup options within budget constraints.

These “current and likely future fiscal environments” were accounted for in the Navy’s 2016 Force Structure Assessment (FSA) of 355 ships. Otherwise, why not shoot for the 650 ships our Combatant Commanders actually need?

As the chairman of the Senate Seapower Subcommittee, I have no interest in mindless shipbuilding. I believe that our ability to project naval power requires a fleet that can cover all critical maritime regions and account for lengthy transit and maintenance cycles. As Admiral Richardson’s Future Navy white paper put it: “Numbers matter. The number of ships in the Navy’s fleet determines where we can be, and being there is a key to naval power.” The CNO also notes that we ought to achieve a 355-ship fleet in the 2020s, not the 2040s or 2050s. He is right. A 355-ship fleet should be our goal for the next decade.

The recent collisions involving the destroyers Fitzgerald and John S. McCain further demonstrate the urgency of our fleet buildup. Although the demand for naval assets has increased substantially since 9/11, the supply of available ships has declined around 20 percent. Our fleet is nearly as small as it was before World War I, and it is fast approaching a “death spiral,” according to naval analysts Robert C. O’Brien and Jerry Hendrix. Increasingly overworked and damaged ships are placing an ever-greater strain on the remaining operational ships and the sailors who operate them. Unless we reverse this spiral, O’Brien and Hendrix argue, the nation can expect “more collisions, more injuries, and more deaths in the fleet.”

Congress has taken four steps this year to help lay a firm foundation for an aggressive, fiscally responsible naval buildup. First, the FY18 budget resolution passed by the Senate and the House allows base defense spending to climb to $640 billion. Because this number exceeds the spending caps set in law, I am hopeful that the budget resolution will help energize congressional efforts to raise the caps and provide short-term budget stability for the Navy.

Second, both the Senate and House versions of the 2018 defense authorization bill include the Wicker-Wittman SHIPS Act, which would establish the Navy’s 355-ship requirement as our national policy. Enactment of the SHIPS Act through the defense bill’s final conference report would send a strong signal that building up the fleet is an enduring priority.

Third, Congress has also supported — in both defense authorization bills — the multiyear procurement of Virginia-class attack submarines and Arleigh Burke-class destroyers. Multiyear procurement would stabilize the industrial base for those ships and generate billions in savings, which could then be plowed into more shipbuilding. For the past two decades, low-rate shipbuilding has eviscerated the supplier base and led to inefficient production schedules. A Navy analysis shows that our shipbuilding industrial base could construct 29 more ships than planned over the next seven years. In other words, our shipyards are up to the challenge.

Finally, I amended this year’s defense authorization bill to direct the Navy to go through its inventory and identify opportunities for extending a ship’s service life or reactivating a ship in the Ready Reserve. It is irresponsible to retire ships early or overlook reactivation opportunities if the benefits exceed the costs. The Navy is currently about 80 ships short of its minimum requirement. We cannot afford to be picky. We need to be creative.

Earlier this year, former Navy Secretary John Lehman testified in favor of the SHIPS Act and told my subcommittee that President Reagan “reaped 90 percent of the benefits of his rebuilding program … in the first year.” In the early ’80s, President Reagan, Congress and the Pentagon were serious about rebuilding the fleet. They made it clear to our allies and the Soviets that the American Navy was coming back in a big way. We can do the same today, but we all need to be on the same page.

We will never grow the fleet unless the Navy — and everyone in the Navy leadership — stands fully behind its own requirements. Indeed, they just might find they get what they need.

Roger Wicker is a Republican representing Mississippi in the United States Senate.

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