Congressional Watch

By Bradley Peniston

Admiral Lautenbacher outlined plans to develop vastly cheaper ways to build, buy, operate, and maintain warships, but Senator Warner took no solace in his words.

"That's the party line, and I'll accept it for the moment," the Senate Armed Services Seapower Subcommittee Chairman said, pounding a broad oaken table and rising to leave. "But I'm going to continue to probe this."

A former Navy Secretary whose district contains the country's largest shipyard, Senator Warner is among the senior lawmakers sounding a tocsin on Capitol Hill.

"The fundamental question facing the Navy is `how many ships?"' declared U.S. Representative David McHale (D-PA), a Marine reservist who has expressed interest in the job of Secretary of the Navy after he leaves Congress this year. At a House National Security Committee hearing in mid-March, McHale noted that a Navy leadership that endorsed a 346-ship fleet in 1993 will by 2003 operate just 303 vessels.

"We're going in the wrong direction," he said.

But the balanced-budget agreement and an expensively frenetic operating tempo probably mean that more ships will be sacrificed.

"Tough choices have to be made, and frankly, I don't see them being made," McHale said.

Balanced Budget Rules

In past years, Congress often has resolved arguments over weapons purchases simply by adding to presidential budget requests. Last October, for example, lawmakers authorized $268.2 billion in defense spending—a real decline of 1.3% from the previous year but $2.6 billion more than the Clinton administration requested. The extra money included $720 million for the year's fourth Arleigh Burke (DDG-51)-class guided-missile destroyer, $165 million for an extra pair of MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, $100 million toward a second San Antonio (LPD-17)class amphibious assault ship, and $20 million for air-cushion landing craft.

But nothing of the sort seems likely when the defense spending bills are struck later this year. Last year's balanced-budget agreement between the White House and Congress dictated all-but-flat defense spending between 1998 and 2002.

Adhering to the deal, the White House's fiscal 1999 request of $81.5 billion for the Navy and Marine Corps is just 1% higher than this year's allocation. Navy officials predict similar budgets through 2003.

Some defense-minded lawmakers—notably Congressman Floyd D. Spence (R-SC)—were already pleading for more military money in late March. As in past years, the chairman of the House National Security Committee asked service chiefs for "wish lists" to guide congressional budget additions.

But Senate Armed Service Committee leaders, intent on holding up their end of the deal, declined to ask for similar lists, aides say. Budget committee leaders Representative John Kasich (R-OH) and Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM) have also declared their loyalty to the agreement.

"At the moment, it's hard to see how there's going to be any substantial additions," said a staffer who works for a member of the Senate defense committee. "There's no interest that would translate into a majority view. Firewalls are in place so you can't do that. You'd have to get 60 votes."

The fiscal 1999 budget request includes $5.7 billion for seven ships: three Arleigh Burke -class destroyers, an LPD-17, one New Attack Submarine (NSSN), an oceanographic ship, and the final large medium-speed roll-on/roll-off vessel. Other money would allow an early start to the final Nimitz (CVN-71)-class aircraft carrier and continue development of the next generation of carriers and destroyers.

Naval aviation would get $7.5 billion for 71 new aircraft and many modernization and upgrade programs, including: 30 F/A-l BE/F Super Hornets, 7 MV-22s, 3 E-2 Hawkeyes, 15 T-45C Goshawk jet trainers, 4 CH-60 helicopters, and 12 remanufactured AV-8B Harriers. The request also includes $463 million to develop the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), slated for first flight in 2001.

Raising Money

Alarm over shrinking fleets and flat funding is stoked by post-Cold War geopolitics that are keeping naval forces busier than ever. By the Navy's count, Sailors and Marines answered bells for 93 contingencies in 96 months between 1990 and 1997.

"While we have not seen declines in readiness in our deployed forces, the overall tempo of operations is beginning to weaken our ability to train the forces which will follow them on station," Navy Secretary John H. Dalton told the Armed Services Committee in early February.

The Navy likely will get some financial relief this year through an emergency supplemental bill that would provide roughly $335 million for operations in Bosnia and Iraq. Since 1991, the military has spent some $7 billion on unanticipated operations, shorting procurement and maintenance to fund them.

Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jay L. Johnson has warned lawmakers that failure to approve the funding would force the Navy to defer ship and other maintenance, while Marine Corps officials have said it would delay weapons procurement and repairs to California bases battered by recent storms.

Some lawmakers sense an opportunity to boost defense spending by redefining "emergency." Citing a $593 million ammunition shortage in Navy and Marine Corps units, Representative Duncan Hunter (R-CA) said March 18 that he would support adding money to the supplemental bill to bring ammunition supplies closer to wartime levels.

Cutting Costs

But even as military boosters searched for ways to spend more money, they wrangled over proposals to cut costs. Echoing Defense Secretary William Cohen's calls for more military base closings, senior Navy officials have repeatedly told lawmakers that the service owns more land than it can afford.

Pentagon planners are counting on more base closings; the five-year budget includes $1.8 billion to facilitate another round in 2001. Coupled with another round of closings in 2005, military officials say they could save $3 billion annually.

But lawmakers, loath to kill hometown jobs and furious with President Clinton's election-year meddling in previous decisions, have so far rejected Cohen's proposals.

Clinton's inaugural use of the line item veto also provoked predictable ire. After giving the President the power to strike single items from bills, Republicans (and not a few Democrats) were horrified in October when Clinton scratched $287 million from military construction in fiscal year 1998. By the time Congress overrode the veto in February, a federal judge already had declared the line-item power an unconstitutional extension of executive authority, and the matter appeared to be heading for the Supreme Court

The military also would like to save money by keeping fewer troops in uniform, but must convince Congress to relax the minimums set by last year's defense authorization act. The naval services have budgeted $24.8 billion for pay and allowances next year, which includes a 3% pay raise for inflation. But Navy officials say that if Congress does not allow the fleet to shrink to 373,000 Sailors and 172,000 Marines—18,000 and 1,800 people below the legal floors—the Navy will need an extra $869 million for payroll expenses.

The QDR

Lawmakers established the limits in response to the Quadrennial Defense Review, released in May 1997 to outline the White House's vision of military strategy and force structure for the next 25 years. Replacing 1993's Bottom-Up Review, the QDR describes a smaller, cheaper national defense organization that relies on high-tech weaponry to offset cuts in troops, tanks, aircraft, and ships. For the Navy, the QDR means covering the world with 12 aircraft carriers, 12 amphibious ready groups (ARG)s, 50 attack subs, and 116 surface ships. This is 3 fewer carriers, 2 fewer ARGs, and 22 fewer subs than the force structure endorsed by Navy officials in 1993. The QDR also slashed future purchases of new tactical aircraft, reducing the planned fleet of 1,000 Super Hornets to 568.

"The shortfall translates into an element of risk," but it's an acceptable and essential gamble, Vice Chief of Naval Operations Donald L. Pilling told the Senate Seapower Subcommittee.

But seapower chair Warner and others have pointed out an "apparent disconnect" between the QDR and the administration's proposed budget: a shipbuilding rate insufficient to maintain a 300-ship fleet.

"I don't see how you're going to hold to that number or anything like it in the next century," Warner told Pilling.

Admiral Pilling admitted that if the Navy does not start replacing ships lost to decommissioning, the fleet will shrink below the QDR levels in a decade.

"We buy two surface combatants a year. We have to get to four to maintain [a total of] 116," Pilling said. And although it takes two new submarines a year to keep a 50-sub force, Navy plans call for no more than one a year through 2003, he said.

Even Admiral Pilling's projections may be somewhat rosy: they assume ships will last about 35 years, about five years longer than the current average. The fleet's oldest ship, the 38-year-old carrier Independence (CV-62), will retire later this year.

Navy officials say the problem isn't yet urgent.

"We have a relatively young fleet. Most ships were built in the 1980s," Navy Undersecretary Jerry M. Hultin told the seapower committee.

The Navy's Solution

The answer, Navy officials are telling lawmakers, is not cutting programs but cutting costs. By agreeing to buy several Arleigh Burke -class destroyers at once, the Navy and Congress are saving $1.4 billion over several years. And in the past year, the Navy Department eliminated 14,600 procurement workers, according to John W. Douglass, the Navy's Assistant Secretary for Acquisition, Research, and Development.

But most important is saving money on the 21st century's newest ships. The Navy's next-generation destroyer, dubbed DD-21, will represent a dramatic change in capability when it is delivered around 2008. Designed expressly for littoral operations, the Land Attack Destroyer is the scion of the Arsenal Ship concept, which was abandoned last fall when Congress decimated the Navy's spending request. Armed with five-inch guns that can fire more than 70 miles, the ship will allow the Navy to meet the Marine Corps' amphibious assault requirements for the first time since the battleships left active service.

Each DD-21 will carry a price tag of $750 million—a little less than an Arleigh Burke —but operation, maintenance, and upgrading will cost one-third as much over the life of the ship.

"We want desperately to reduce the size of crews aboard ship," Pilling said. "If we can reduce a destroyer to 95 people we can save 70% of the life-cycle cost of the ship," he said.

Cutting the crew by two-thirds will take a ship designed from the keel up with cost reduction in mind. Some equipment will be modeled on current commercial ship technology that allows freighters to cruise with minimal manning. Command and control systems will likely draw upon lessons learned aboard the Navy's "Smart Ships."

Other systems will require groundbreaking research. Hundreds of thousands of sensors will permeate the vessel, radioing conditions to supercomputers and maintenance experts ashore, who will alert the crew when shipboard machinery needs work. Preventive maintenance will disappear, and with it, a good chunk of the 300-plus people who currently man the Navy's destroyers.

"If we can control the space shuttle for weeks on end with complete reliance on expertise in Houston," we can do it on DD-21, Navy requirements chief Lautenbacher said.

"That's a sea change, admiral," Warner said. "You had better be right."

Just getting DD-21 onto the drawing board will feature a radical new way to cut costs. Instead of receiving heavy handed direction by the Navy, the civilian shipyards will design the stealthy ship upon a few basic principles.

"This boat, whatever its parameters, is going to be designed almost completely by industry," Douglass said.

But in mid-March, Douglass told lawmakers, the plan to solicit competitive bids had hit a snag: only one shipyard, systems integrator, and general contractor team was interested.

"That causes me a lot of concern. I cannot conceive of this going forward in a single-source environment," Douglass said.

Asked why he thought only one team had stepped forward, Douglas suggested the high cost of tooling up for a new class of ships. But he added that, "Some may think there's too much political support for the current team" of Bath Iron Works, Lockheed Martin, and Ingalls Shipbuilding.

Aircraft Carriers

Still another cost-cutting method will be used to build the tenth and final Nimitz -class carrier. As Navy officials pondered the estimated $5.18 billion price tag, Newport News Shipbuilding officials offered a suggestion: save $580 million by starting construction a year early. The acceleration would cut the idle time between the carriers Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) and CVN-77, allowing the shipyard to keep its team of 3,000 workers intact.

In October, however, Congress rejected plans for an aggressive start to CVN-77: the fiscal year 1998 defense authorization provided only one-seventh of a $345 million request.

This year, Navy officials are trying a different tack: moving the carrier's large final payment up a year to fiscal 2001.

Described by Acquisition Secretary Douglass as "the Navy's highest priority this year," CVN-77 is slated to cost $4.5 billion: $50 million in fiscal year 1998, $0.1 billion in 1999, $0.8 billion in 2000, and $3.6 billion in 2001.

But reworking the payment schedule may prove easier than keeping the ship to its budget. Since laying the original rough blueprints, the Navy has decided to turn CVN-77 into a technological test bed for its next-generation carrier, dubbed CVX. Instead of time-honored steam, for example, the new carriers' catapults may launch aircraft using electromagnetism or internal combustion. Shipyards officials have warned that such tinkering may boost the price tag.

Naval aviation officials say the experimentation is necessary to make CVX a truly modern carrier.

"There's a medium to high risk" that such systems will not be ready for CVN-77, which is slated for delivery in 2008, aviation requirements head Rear Admiral Dennis V. McGinn told lawmakers. But "it's something we feel is worth pursuing," he said.

Aviation

Weeks after the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet program emerged intact from the fiscal 1998 budget battle, an aerobatic hiccup called "wing drop" landed the strike fighter back in hot water.

Over the objections of lawmakers such as Hunter—who preferred the Navy to get along with the smaller C and D model Hornets until the stealthy JSF arrives in 2005, the Super Hornet's congressional supporters approved the Navy's fiscal year 1998 request for $2.1 billion toward 20 aircraft.

But in November, press reports revealed a flaw in the aircraft's flight performance: unexpected rollouts during near-supersonic turns at certain altitudes. Navy officials downplayed the problem, calling it less serious than ones already solved by the Super Hornet development team, such as smoky engines and munitions that collided when dropped. Still, the furor prompted threats from Defense Secretary William Cohen to withhold the $2.1 billion appropriation.

Navy officials rushed to assure lawmakers that the problem, discovered in early 1996, was well in hand. In February, the Navy invited former Top Gun instructor Representative Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-CA), to take a two-hour spin over Patuxent River Naval Air Station, Maryland. Two weeks later, Acquisition Secretary Douglass brandished a five-foot wing panel of perforated metal before a House committee and promised an imminent solution. Most members seemed to accept Navy officials' reassurances that the plane would perform acceptably.

In late March, as Congress mulled the request for $2.9 billion to buy 30 more Super Hornets, it appeared that a fix for the wing drop had been developed.

Submarines

While construction begins on the first of the New Attack Submarine class this year, the fiscal year 1999 budget contains $2 billion for the second NSSN. The first underwater vessel specifically designed for littoral operations, NSSN will have a digital periscope, quieter machinery, better SEAL-deploying options, and more ways to strike land targets with Tomahawk cruise missiles.

The fleet's 18 Ohio -class Trident missile submarines will remain in service through the five-year plan, unless the Start II arms control treaty is ratified, in which case four of the subs would have to have their ballistic missiles removed after the turn of the century.

Minehunting

Upon close questioning by interested lawmakers, the Navy's requirements chiefs detailed plans to equip current and future ships with minehunting capability. New chin pods for ship's bows will contain lasers and high-frequency sonar to locate the deadly explosive devices. Both surface ships and submarines will get little remote-controlled vehicles that will swim away from the mother craft to sniff out mines. More minesweeping helicopters will join the fleet; the next ten Arleigh Burke -class destroyers will have hangars to hold them.

"The organic capability will give us the ability to act immediately without waiting for forces to arrive from the United States," Lautenbacher said.

TBMD

Piqued, perhaps, by the similarities to a national ballistic missile shield, Congressional interest ran high in shipboard anti-ballistic-missile systems. Now slated for deployment aboard some cruisers and Arleigh Burke -class destroyers in 2003 or 2004, the new weapons would allow the ships to shoot down ballistic missiles in a 50-mile radius, laying the foundation for the Navy's plans to field a system that could protect an entire theater of war from such weapons.

But the Navy's acquisition chief said lawmakers' proposals to accelerate the deployment would greatly increase costs—and risk deploying an inadequate system.

"It would be putting an awful lot of money on the line in a very risky program," Douglass said.

"I think it's too risky not to go as fast as we can," responded Hunter, who chairs the House procurement subcommittee.

Budget Prognosis

The thorny budget problems have defense-minded lawmakers frustrated.

"I think we're stumbling around in the dark on it, wondering what we're going to do," said one Senate staffer. "It's more than I've seen in my seven years here."

Getting to the 21st-century fleet on the Navy plan will require technological and organizational leaps of faith. But lawmakers worry not only that the Navy won't be able to meet defense needs with the current budget, but whether Navy leadership has a handle on the hard choices.

"I am personally not yet convinced that the Department of the Navy is taking this seriously enough," said Senator Chuck Robb (D-VA) in mid-March.

A congressional defense staffer with knowledge of the Navy's acquisition programs added, "They have been short on those answers and it's frustrating. They have to settle some internal bureaucratic wars."

And for this year at least, there may be no congressional deus ex machina to kick start the shipbuilding program.

"Politically, it's hard to see how that's going to happen, barring an international crisis," Senator Joseph I. Lieberman (D-CT) told the Navy's requirements officials at an early March hearing.

Bradley Peniston is a staff writer for Navy Times .

 

Mr. Peniston is managing editor of Defense News

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