CAPITOL HILL: “I think this is a papering-over of their dismantling of the Navy,” House Armed Services seapower subcommittee chairman Randy Forbes told me this afternoon. “They aren’t having the courage or the straightforwardness or transparency to call it what it is.”
Between the Pentagon’s proposed reduction in warships currently in the water and its redefinition of what counts as a “battle force” ship, Forbes said, “they’re now building paper ships to fight real-world enemies” — and essentially lying about it.
Shrinking budgets may be forcing hard choices on the federal government, but Forbes believes the Obama administration is imposing needlessly painful choices on the Pentagon without being honest about it. The outspoken and ambitious Virginia Republican, in the running for chairman of HASC, is particularly incensed about aircraft carriers — icons of American power that are built and overhauled exclusively in his home state — because the 2015 budget request punts the decision about whether to refit or retire the USS George Washington.
Without the Washington, the Navy’s carrier fleet falls to a historic low of just 10 flattops. Administration officials say they may buy back Washington in fiscal 2016 if Congress rolls back the automatic spending cuts known as sequestration (which is itself politically unlikely), but Forbes won’t buy it.
“We say we’re not going to reduce our carriers down from 11 to 10,” Forbes fumed in a HASC hearing with Navy Secretary Ray Mabus earlier today. “In reality, Mr. Secretary….we’ve made the decision to cut back from 11 to 10, we’re just waiting until maybe after November [i.e. the elections] or something to announce it. But you’ve taken all the steps [and] the actions to take it out.”
So, I asked Forbes later, is the administration is being dishonest? “I would agree with that.” Are they lying? “You can call it that,” he said. “It is certainly a distortion of what’s actually happening.”
While the Washington won’t come into the shipyard until fall 2016, there’s a lot of prep work to do either to decommission the nuclear-powered behemoth or to overhaul it for another 25 years of service. The 2015 request does fund removing the spent nuclear fuel, which would be necessary either way. But by Forbes’ accounting, almost a billion dollars required to get ready to refuel and refit — $243 million for planning, $300 million for new nuclear reactor cores, and $450 million for advanced procurement of other long-lead-time materials — seem to have vanished between last year’s budget plans and the one the president just presented. (We’re asking the Navy for clarification).
Forbes insisted he does not blame Mabus or the Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. Jonathan Greenert. “I believe with everything that’s within me that… this is not his decision [i.e. Mabus’s]; it’s not the CNO’s decision. I have great respect for them,” Forbes told me. “I feel very comfortable [saying] that this was an OSD [Office of the Secretary of Defense] decision, probably dropped on them by OMB,” the White House’s Office of Management and Budget.
So, I asked, are you blaming Barack Obama? “I’m saying the administration,” Forbes replied. “He runs the administration.”
“If you had a president that said, we need an eleventh carrier, they would not be taking this action that they’re taking today,” Forbes told me.
Mabus and Greenert insist that the only actions they’re taking apply equally to either keeping Washington or to decommissioning her. The changes in the 2015 budget simply buy more time to make that decision, they argue, instead of having to rush into it.
“We’re doing everything in ’15 that would need to be done for a carrier no matter what, so [for] the decision on refueling vs. retirement , we’ve opened up the space a year… so Congress and we can look at it,” Mabus told reporters after the HASC hearing. “We’ve moved the decision a year. That’s it. No decision’s been made either way.”
It’s true that the current future years defense plan (FYDP) for 2016-2019 complies with the sequestration spending limits and therefore pays for only 10 carriers. The president’s decision to request $115 billion above the caps came too late in the budget planning cycle to update the FYDP, I’ve been told. But, Mabus told reporters after the hearing, “we’ve received guidance from the acting deputy secretary of defense that, as we begin to prepare [for] budget year ’16, that we should prepare to have that carrier in there.”
Greenert said much the same Monday afternoon to reporters summoned to his E-Ring office. For the 2016 budget request, the admiral said, “OSD’s direction was… I’d like to see the aircraft carrier in your program.”
That’s not an easy fit: It will cost $7 billion over three years to overhaul George Washington, not to mention keep her and her associated air wing operating, none of which is in the current FYDP. The overhaul alone costs enough money to build two or three new Virginia attack submarines or Arleigh Burke destroyers.
The last time Greenert tried to fit the Washington into a sequestered budget, the sacrifices to the rest of the Navy were too painful. “So we went down and I said it’s not in,” the CNO said. Now, for the 2016 budget, he said, “they’re asking me to take a look at it again. So I’ll see what has changed between now and when I submit that budget estimate in September.”
During last week’s Senate Armed Services Committee hearing with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and outgoing Comptroller Bob Hale, Hale told Forbes’ colleague from Virginia, Tim Kaine, that the Pentagon needs “an indication” that sequestration will lift before they can decide to refit the carrier.
“We have to have some indication from Congress that you are going to appropriate the money we need,” Hale said.
“I’m wondering precisely what ‘indication’ would be sufficient, given we’ve just done a budget?” Kaine asked.
And when pressed if he would commit to refitting the carrier, Hagel would only say that “the law does not allow me to do that with the current numbers.”
The Pentagon is caught between two statutes: the Budget Control Act that imposed sequestration and the congressional mandate to keep 11 aircraft carriers.
“We’re aware of the law that says we have to have 11 carriers,” Mabus told reporters today. (In fact, that law’s been waived, temporarily, and the flattop fleet is currently at 10 ships because the USS Enterprise retired before the delayed and over-budget USS Gerald Ford could enter service to replace her).
“We also have said very frankly that we want to keep this carrier, we want to keep the associated air wing,” Mabus went on. “We have a requirement for them. We have a necessity for them.”