Carrier Clash Hints At Future Spending Battles

(POLITICO 21 MAR 14) … Austin Wright and Philip Ewing

The Navy was prepared to retire an aircraft carrier to cope with budget caps. It laid the groundwork for the decision, assuming in its five-year spending plan it would decommission the ship.

But by the time the budget was announced, the plan had been upended. The Navy has said it’s keeping the carrier, at least for another year.

The last-minute wrangling over the Navy’s request is just one example of the difficulties for the military, the White House and Congress in finding ways to agree to spend less than planned on defense.

Whether it’s cutting a carrier or canceling a drone program, one of those three groups – or an influential defense contractor – is nearly certain to find the move unacceptable, making saving defense dollars a lengthy and complicated negotiation.

Shipbuilders and their allies are already going on the offensive. Next week, the Aircraft Carrier Industrial Base Coalition says it plans to visit more than 100 offices on Capitol Hill. The lobbying group, made up of contractors that build the carrier and supply its parts, is buying ads, including in POLITICO, urging Congress to fund the scheduled refueling of the USS George Washington.

Midway through their 50-year service lives, the Navy’s carriers need their nuclear reactors refueled and other major maintenance. By decommissioning the George Washington instead of overhauling it, the Navy believes it could save about $7 billion – $4 billion in refueling and maintenance alone – over the next five years.

Navy officials had planned to ask Congress this month to cut one of the prized carriers adrift – a sign of their desperation as they sought to free up cash in a straightjacketed budget.

But the Virginia delegation on Capitol Hill has been fiercely defensive of shipbuilding programs and naval assets based in the state, including shipbuilding giant Huntington Ingalls’s carrier. When they got wind of the idea, they appealed to the White House to lean on the Pentagon and give the ship at least another year’s grace.

Democratic Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, both of Virginia, made clear privately and publicly that they would not quietly go along with the idea of cutting an aircraft carrier. As the military readied to release the budget publicly, the Navy’s request to decommission the George Washington became a “PB 16 decision” – one for next year.

“There’s been a broad-based effort to say that keeping the full carrier fleet is critical to the nation’s defense,” Warner told POLITICO.

An aide to Kaine said the two senators “spoke with officials at every level to stress the importance of maintaining an 11-carrier fleet for our national defense and readiness capability.”

Further complicating the issue is the legal mandate that the U.S. maintain a fleet of 11 carriers – a requirement the Navy already had to ask Congress to change to accommodate the decommissioning of the carrier USS Enterprise, which was more than 50 years old.

“The continued retention of an 11th carrier is required by law – plain and simple,” said Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, another shipbuilding advocate.

There are signs the wrangling is far from over. Virginia Rep. Randy Forbes, who tangled with the Navy before over its request to retire batches of surface warships, has accused the administration of misrepresenting its position, saying the Navy is already taking steps to retire the carrier.

“There’s a huge disconnect between the rhetoric we’re hearing and the actions that are being taken,” Forbes said, noting that the administration removed from its budget request hundreds of millions of dollars to lay the foundation for the carrier’s refueling.

A White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, insisted “no decision has been made to retire the carrier.”

Even though the ship has been spared another year, its eventual fate is unclear. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has said the Navy could maintain the carrier if it gets additional sequester relief in future years – but not if it doesn’t.

Cmdr. Bill Urban, a Pentagon spokesman, acknowledged the department’s Future Years Defense Program assumes the decommissioning of the George Washington after next year. But he said the Navy’s spending request for fiscal 2015 “has sufficient funds to maintain the option to refuel and keep” the carrier – meaning the ship’s fate hasn’t been sealed.

In the meantime, that uncertainty is making it harder to plan, contractors say.

“We are concerned that the lack of funding in the [fiscal 2015] budget proposal” for the refueling and overhaul “could impact the planning necessary to execute” the project “if the Navy decides to conduct” it in fiscal 2016, said Beci Brenton, a spokeswoman for Huntington Ingalls.

The overhaul and refueling would require 30 months of planning to carry it out “in the most efficient way,” Brenton said.

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