Forbes: Saving Carrier Means Concessions

(POLITICO 02 APR 14) … Philip Ewing

Rep. Randy Forbes says he’s confident Congress can rescue the aircraft carrier USS George Washington this year but not so sure it can preserve a batch of cruisers the Navy wants to lay up.

The Virginia Republican, who chairs the House Armed Services seapower subcommittee, told POLITICO that he believes its likely Congress will ultimately find a way to keep the George Washington in the fleet given its importance to national security. Doing that, however, might require a strategic concession to let the Navy take 11 of its cruisers out of service for now, as service officials requested in this year’s budget submission.

“I think there is a strong resolve in Congress to make sure we have those 11 carriers,” Forbes said. “When you look at the events around the world, people are starting to realize what we’ve been talking about; these defense cuts have been too great, too much. I think the United States needs that carrier for its defense, and I think we will see that going back in.”

Forbes admitted, though, he doesn’t know yet how exactly Congress could try to preserve the George Washington, but he said the political will is there. The Navy says it needs more than $4 billion to undertake the ship’s refueling and complex overhaul after fiscal year 2016 and $7 billion to refuel it and then return it to the fleet over the next few years.

Congress should find the money, Forbes said, because the value of a carrier strike group endures for such a long time. The George Washington is midway through its 25-year service life, and future presidents would regret not having it available to respond to potential crises.

“Now, can I tell you right now how we put those pieces of the puzzle together together? No.” Forbes said. “I think there’s a number of different ways, but I’m very optimistic we get it done.”

Forbes’s fellow Virginians who are in the Senate, Democrats Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, have said they also want to work to save the carrier. Ship repair and construction are vital parts of the economy of the Hampton Roads region of their state.

The Navy also has asked to take 11 cruisers out of its fleet and “lay them up.” Navy Secretary Ray Mabus told Congress the goal is to modernize the ships and put them back into service as the service’s other 11 cruisers retire. Service officials say it is not a scheme to begin the process of decommissioning the ships, but Forbes and other seapower advocates are skeptical.

Keeping both the George Washington and the cruisers might be a bridge too far, however. When his subcommittee begins to mark up its portion of this year’s National Defense Authorization Act, Forbes said, it will consider ways to guarantee the Navy actually does upgrade and return the cruisers to service – instead of putting them out to pasture once everyone has forgotten about them.

One tactic Forbes said his committee might consider is requiring the Navy to begin work relatively quickly on the cruisers’ hull, mechanical and electrical upgrades. Service leaders might be a lot less likely to decommission ships after they’ve made those kinds of investments, the thinking goes – although the Navy does have a history of getting rid of ships with years of remaining service life in the interest of long-term savings.

The Navy also has asked to get rid of surface warships before, requesting from Congress to let it shrink its surface force in order to maintain the “wholeness” of the ships that remained. But Forbes and his colleagues balked, requiring the Navy to keep the ships, returning seven of them to the fleet in fiscal year 2013.

Persuading colleagues outside of the military orbit to go along with some defense proposals is much tougher than it used to be, Forbes acknowledged. Although he said he wins a lot of converts with briefings about the importance of national defense, he conceded the case does not make itself the way it did during and after the Cold War.

“It’s an incredibly difficult challenge,” he said. “It’s a difficult lift, more so than I’ve ever seen it.”

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