Mitt Romney's 15-Warship Plan Faces Political Torpedoes

GOP candidate's vision for bigger Navy might prove fleeting in the face of budget cuts

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GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney's vow to build 15 Navy warships annually would be tough to pay for and require politically difficult cuts from other parts of the military, analysts say.

Romney has on the campaign trail repeatedly bashed President Obama's defense plans, including his intention to buy nine war ships per year. "The president is looking to diminish our military," Romney tells largely pro-military GOP crowds on the trail. The emerging differences on defense needs between Obama and Romney could make it a key issue should the former Massachusetts governor win the Republican nomination and face Obama in the general election.

Obama is proposing to cut 100,000 active-duty troops from the Army and Marine Corps by 2017 to adhere to a $350 billion congressionally mandated, decade-long national defense cut. The 2013 Pentagon budget that will be unveiled later this month also will propose retiring Air Force aircraft and mothballing Navy ships. "That's the wrong course," Romney said late last month. "We should increase our shipbuilding [and] we should increase the number of modernized craft in our Air Force. I would add 100,000 personnel to our armed services."

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On shipbuilding specifically, Romney's stump speech stance is this: "We ought to raise that to 15 ships a year."

The line gets applause from Republican crowds in pro-military places like South Carolina and parts of Florida, where Romney has most recently delivered his bigger Navy pitch. But turning the campaign trail rhetoric into reality will be difficult at a time when annual Pentagon spending would still be capped when a potential President Romney would fashion his first budget proposal. That will leave little wiggle room to add expensive ships, and would force Romney to immediately cut from other parts of the defense budget, like the Army,-which would put him at odds with the so-called Army caucus on Capitol Hill.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has estimated the sea service's shipbuilding plans of nine ships a year would cost "$21 billion per year for total shipbuilding." Adding new war vessels to that plan would be difficult, said Todd Harrison, a defense budget analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

"This would be a zero-sum game," Harrison said. "Any money that would be added to the shipbuilding budget has to come from elsewhere. Are you going to retire more ships? Are you going to cut the Army or Air Force even deeper?" But Army proponents in both parties on Capitol Hill are expected to resist the troop cuts proposed by Obama. "So then the question is, can you do more of that to sure up the shipbuilding program?" Harrison said. "That becomes a political challenge."

"Given the type of ships the Navy wants--$6 billion destroyers and $11 billion aircraft carriers--the Navy budget would have to beggar both the Marines and the Air Force to get there, and the only real way to pay for it all after the other services cued up for their share of the pot would be higher taxes," says Winslow Wheeler, a former congressional defense aide now at the Center for Defense Information. "It is a meaningless, hollow, empty rhetorical gesture that would do nothing relevant to 21st century defense problems."

One adviser to the Romney campaign suggested the candidate could be planning to pay for his shipbuilding swell by repealing the controversial 2010 healthcare law Obama pushed through Congress, which Republicans loathe. The Congressional Budget Office has said it could cost more than $900 billion; the CBO also has concluded repealing it "would probably increase federal budget deficits over the 2012–2019 period by a total of roughly $145 billion."

Romney's campaign press office had yet to respond to an inquiry seeking further details.

One defense insider said Romney's shipbuilding plan is doable and "should be taken seriously."

"The Navy's budget for ship construction averages around $15 billion annually, which is only 2 percent to 3 percent of military spending at present rates," said Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute and a defense industry consultant. "It would be relatively easy for a Romney administration to raise that amount as spending in other mission areas is reduced. ... There is a persuasive operational and fiscal case to be made for the idea."