Navy Stands by 300-Ship Goal Despite Smaller Budgets

Obama and Romney are likely to square off over the proper size of the U.S. Navy.

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A top Navy leader on Monday again claimed the sea service is on track to field a 300-ship fleet later this decade, but experts are skeptical.

The Navy for nearly a decade stated it would need 313 ships to meet all its expected missions. But, due to declining budgets, sea service officials have recently dropped that figure to 300.

President Obama’s likely general election foe, Mitt Romney, regularly slams Obama for scaling back the Navy’s ship plans. Romney has vowed to nearly double the number of ships the Navy builds annually, setting up an election-year issue voters will hear more about.

“We need to have a fleet which has enough of the right kind of ships to do the missions assigned,” Navy Secretary Ray Mabus reportedly said Monday at a conference near Washington.

Experts who have long studied Pentagon budgeting and shipbuilding have their doubts about the Navy’s plans.

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“At no point over the next three decades will the U.S. Navy approach a fleet size totaling 313 ships,” Mackenzie Eaglen, a former congressional staffer now at the American Enterprise Institute wrote in a recent op-ed. “The fleet falls under 300 ships for nearly half of [a] 30-year span.”

Several analysts have concluded the Navy’s latest plan might lead it to a fleet just smaller than 300--but a lot of things would have to go right for that to happen.

“But even a fleet of 298 ships is optimistic given that the Navy’s latest plan over-inflates force levels due to excessive ship life estimates,” Eaglen wrote.

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.”

On the campaign trail, Romney has said: “We ought to raise that to 15 ships a year.”

The line gets applause from Republican crowds in places like South Carolina and Florida. But turning the campaign trail rhetoric into reality would 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 would leave little room to buy more models of expensive warships and could force Romney to 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.

An aide to Romney tells DOTMIL the candidate would ramp up to 15 ships per year by reversing recent Pentagon budget cuts and squeezing more “waste” from the Pentagon.

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