November 1, 2005  

Tighter budgets await next secretaries

To a person, Senate Armed Services Committee members signaled support for the two men nominated to be Air Force and Navy secretaries. But after two hours of hearing senators describe the services’ problems, it’s a wonder Michael Wynne and Donald Winter still want the jobs.

The two will be expected to corral spiraling weapon costs, reform out-of-control acquisition systems, crack down on sexual assaults at the service academies, speed delivery of weapons to troops and develop credible, long-term plans for buying ships and aircraft — and do it all with budgets that are unlikely to increase much.

Committee chairman Sen. John Warner said Oct. 6 he expects the two will be confirmed by the Senate. If so, both will take control of services beleaguered by troubles.

The Navy, according to senators, is beset by a shrinking fleet, encumbered by fast-rising shipbuilding costs and challenged by an expanding Chinese Navy. Meanwhile, the Air Force is struggling to overcome deeply embedded ethical lapses and unaffordable aircraft acquisition programs.

“No doubt, one of the major challenges is going to be how to get 6 pounds into a 5-pound sack,” said Wynne, nominated to head the Air Force.

In addition to paying for the aircraft it is buying — F/A-22 stealth fighters, Joint Strike Fighters, C-130J and C-17 cargo planes, among others — the Air Force wants to buy new refueling tankers, search-and-rescue helicopters, light cargo aircraft and a new long-range bomber. But it’s hard to see how all of that is affordable.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., told Wynne that in the eight years since he entered the Senate, defense spending has increased from less than $250 billion a year to nearly $450 billion a year, plus as much as $100 billion a year in supplementary funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I don’t know if we will see continued increases,” Sessions said.

If tight budgets are looming for the Air Force, they have already washed over the Navy.

The 2006 defense budget calls for building only four ships and would reduce the aircraft carrier fleet from 12 to 11.

“I’m deeply concerned about the direction we’re going in,” said Sen. James Talent, chairman of the Armed Services seapower subcommittee.

Four years ago, the Navy hoped to maintain a fleet of 310 ships. Today, it says the fleet may shrink to as low as 260 ships, he said. The dwindling fleet may be “imperiling the country,” said Talent, R-Mo.

While the United States builds one submarine a year, China is acquiring 11 this year alone, he said. By 2010, the Chinese Navy will have 50 or more submarines and, if current trends continue, the U.S. Navy will have fewer.

Talent urged Winter to become an advocate for shipbuilding if he is confirmed as Navy secretary.

Senators from shipbuilding states — Republicans Susan Collins of Maine and Warner of Virginia, and Connecticut Democrat Joseph Lieberman — echoed Talent’s concern.

“This is so serious, the president has got to make a decision,” Warner said. “A certain allocation has to be made separate from the [defense] budget for shipbuilding.”

It is no longer acceptable to divide the defense budget roughly into thirds, one for each service, he said.

Lieberman, whose state includes Electric Boat, the submarine-building division of General Dynamics, said the current practice of building one submarine a year will lead to a fleet of about 30. But Navy studies call for a fleet of 54 or 55.

“We need to build two per year, but the budget does not provide for that until 2012,” he said.

“Shipbuilding budgets are woefully inadequate, particularly in light of the Chinese buildup,” Collins agreed. She denounced an earlier Navy decision to award DD(X) destroyer work to a single shipyard, a move the Navy argued would save money by eliminating duplicate overhead costs. The plan threatened to drive Maine’s Bath Iron Works shipyard out of business. Collins said hurricane damage to Bath’s Mississippi rival should have convinced the Navy that it must keep both shipyards open. Calling shipbuilding and the shrinking fleet the most important issues confronting the Navy, Winter said he hopes to “identify a specific, credible number of ships needed” and develop a plan to build them.

Senators made it clear that both Winter and Wynne must tackle the problem of escalating weapon costs. “You’ve got a huge problem with procurement costs escalating” to the point that weapons are unaffordable, said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. He cited “$2 billion destroyers, $14 billion aircraft carriers and $500 million aircraft.”

Wynne said that as Air Force secretary, he would carefully review weapon requirements to ensure the capabilities of the aircraft being bought do not exceed needed capabilities. He suggested making “trade-offs rather than add-ons” if the service wants to modify the planes it is buying.