First of two parts
To hear Navy officials tell it, shipbuilders like Northrop Grumman Newport News are finally heading for good times.
After dwindling to its smallest size in about a century, the Navy's 279-ship fleet will grow to 313 ships over the next decade.
A new aircraft carrier will be purchased every four or five years, and submarine production will double.
But outside the Navy, who believes it?
Not budget experts, who warn that the billions of additional dollars needed in coming years are unlikely to materialize.
Not independent naval analysts, who say the Navy's 30-year shipbuilding plan is based on too many optimistic assumptions about cost growth.
And certainly not some pivotal members of Congress, who have blasted the plan as "pure fantasy."
Outside the corridors of the Pentagon, a remarkable consensus is building in Washington that the Navy's shipbuilding program — promising a stable modernized fleet for decades to come at affordable costs — is no longer credible.
"There are very few people outside the Navy who believe the plan can be executed," said Robert Work, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
With no sign of crisis on the horizon, the state of the Navy's fleet — and the shipbuilding program needed to support it — has won little attention nationally.
As the nation enters its sixth year of war in Iraq, defense talk in Washington has focused understandably on the strains of an overstretched Army and Marine Corps.
But unless the shipbuilding program is reworked, policymakers say, there's little hope the Navy will have the ships it says it needs to meet future threats.
"For over a hundred years, we've relied on a strong Navy to project power and to maintain peace," said Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., chairman of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee. "I've said repeatedly that the Navy's current shipbuilding request is grossly inadequate to meet the goal of a 313-ship fleet while maintaining our naval superiority."
By all accounts, the Navy's challenge is daunting. To sustain even a 300-ship fleet, the Navy would need to buy 10 ships a year, on average, because the typical warship lasts about 30 years.
The 10-ship quota was easily exceeded during the Reagan defense buildup of the 1980s. At the height of the boom, in 1986, the Navy bought 20 ships.
But since 1993, the Navy has never bought more than eight ships in a single year. This year, it's buying only four. Next year's proposed budget calls for buying seven.
To make up, the Navy's shipbuilding plan promises to go on a shopping spree, consistently buying 12 or 13 ships a year.
But because of tight budgets and the rising costs of ship construction, the buying binge wouldn't begin until 2012. And to finance the binge, the Navy says, funding for ship construction would have to grow from about $12.4 billion next year to $17.9 billion in 2013.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office found that the plan would cost much more — an average of $25 billion annually, double the $12.6 billion a year the Navy has spent, on average, for shipbuilding since 2003, even after adjusting for inflation.
That dramatic increase in financing — with no identified way to pay for it in a post-Bush era when defense spending is expected to decline — has made the plan suspect to many observers.
"There ain't gonna be enough money to build those ships," said Norman Polmar, a noted naval historian and author. "It's not there now, and it's not going to be there."
Navy officials have defended their plan as realistic and affordable, assuming that they can meet their goals for controlling costs and increasing efficiencies in ship construction.
But in a recent interview with defense reporters, the Navy's top uniformed officer acknowledged the growing public doubts about the plan, after years of faulty forecasts, lowball cost estimates and repeated delays in long-promised production boosts.
"The fact that we have missed our forecasting costs in the past has brought our credibility into question," said Adm. Gary Roughead, chief of naval operations.
A year ago, for example, the Navy promised to buy 60 ships between 2009 and 2013. This year, the plan calls for buying only 47 ships in that period.
Roughead said the Navy "repriced the plan" to better reflect anticipated costs.
"I believe we have been able to better price the plan than we have in the past," he said.
That "repricing," experts said, amounts to a huge cost increase from the forecast made just a year ago.
The average annual cost of the plan increased 40 percent, after adjusting for inflation, according to the Congressional Research Service. The increase isn't due to any significant changes in the composition of the fleet.
With such a huge cost adjustment after one year, "the Navy no longer appears to have a clearly identifiable announced strategy for raising the shipbuilding funds needed to execute the 30-year plan," said Ronald O'Rourke, a veteran naval analyst, in a report prepared for Congress.
On Capitol Hill, the shipbuilding plan has triggered bipartisan scorn. In unusually strident language, key lawmakers of both political parties have made clear their frustration with a plan that few consider credible.
"The current shipbuilding plan for the 313-ship fleet is pure fantasy," said Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss., chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on seapower. "It is totally unaffordable with the resources the Department of Defense allocates to the Navy for ship construction."
Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, ranking Republican on the full Armed Services Committee, was even blunter.
"The shipbuilding program is in shambles," he said.
Even if enough money was found to execute the plan, analysts noted, the Navy would still face a shortfall in some key ships in coming decades. For example, the Navy has said it needs at least 48 attack submarines to meet mission requirements around the globe.
But the plan calls for the fleet to drop below 48 subs beginning in 2022. It would reach a low of 41 boats in 2028 and 2029 and fail to rebound to full strength until 2034.
Navy officials have said they are hoping to lessen the shortfall by studying ways of extending the life of older subs.
They also proposed accelerating plans to double sub production — buying two a year, instead of one — beginning in 2011, instead of 2012.
Aircraft carriers, too, would come up short in the plan. The Navy has a requirement for 11, but the fleet would drop to 10 in 2013 and 2014 before rebounding.
That gap, which the Navy is hoping to lessen, results from the scheduled retirement of the USS Enterprise before its replacement — the Gerald R. Ford — will be ready for service.
Coming tomorrow The Navy says it needs 313 ships. But which 313 ships does it need?