By Emelie Rutherford

The Navy’s top admiral said last Friday he worries about the fragility of the shipbuilding industry and called for the service to enhance relations with it to keep ship programs on track.

Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Adm. Gary Roughead said at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington that there’s "no question there are some things that we have to do with the industrial base" for shipbuilding.

"I believe, given the fragility of the base, and the fact that the Navy is really the game in town, it will be important that we work with that base early on, with the leadership of those industries, and have a common view of what it is that we need and where we’re going, as opposed to waiting to the end-game and then slogging it out," Roughead said during a speech. "So, I think we have to have a different approach there."

Roughead said he spends "a fair amount of time focused on our industrial base."

"There are some who would say that it’s not the job of the CNO to worry about the industrial base; I worry about the industrial base," he said. "Its viability is important to the United States Navy, particularly in the area of shipbuilding, where the United States Navy is the source of work for the shipbuilding industry."

The CNO, though, rejected the assertion that Navy shipbuilding is "broken." If that were the case, he said, the Navy wouldn’t have Virginia-class attack submarines, Nimitz-class nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, and DDG-51 guided-missile destroyers.

In terms of the sea service’s shipbuilding plans, Roughead emphasized that "capacity is important," and lamented that the Navy’s 283-ship fleet is the smallest it has been since 1916.

He said the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), which Lockheed Martin [LMT] and General Dynamics [GD] each are building, and the Joint High Speed vessel, under contract with Austal USA, "are the real number-drivers as we move into the future."

"In addition to their capabilities, that capacity is important to me," Roughead said.

Despite the littoral ships’ troubled development, he predicted "when it is all said and done, they will be the workhorses of the fleet, and the LCS will have 1,000 fathers."

He reiterated his support for ending the DDG-1000 destroyer line at three ships and restarting DDG-51 production, saying the older ships best address emerging threats.

"It is in the area of…integrated air-and-missile defense and blue-water (anti-submarine warfare) ASW that I am most pressed with regard to providing those capabilities to our Navy component commanders and to the combatant commanders," Roughead said. Northrop Grumman [NOC] and General Dynamics share the DDG-51 program, and General Dynamics is slated to build the three DDG-1000s.

The nascent Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) will look at amphibious shipping, which Roughead argued is important not only for power-projection missions but also for partnership-building activities with other nations.

Aircraft carriers, he added, "still are very relevant to the types of missions that we do."

The CNO said he also keeps close tabs on naval aircraft manufacturers and the service’s related purchasing plans.

Roughead said he "monitor(s) carefully" the Navy’s strike-fighter capacity, which he said will be a topic of discussion during the QDR.

The Navy faces a fighter shortfall from 2012 to 2017, as it waits for the developmental F-35 Joint Strike Fighter from Lockheed Martin. Roughead said officials have to weigh options including extending the current fleet of Boeing [BA]-built F/A-18 Hornet fighter jets and determining if Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornets "figure into that solution as well."

Asked by reporters if the eventual replacement for the Super Hornets will be manned or unmanned, Roughead said "that will be determined," and that cost and technical aspects will be determinants.

He told the think-tank crowd the recent first test flight of the Boeing-built P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft–the replacement for Lockheed Martin’s P- 3 Orion–was "a significant milestone" for the Navy.

Roughead cited to reporters two additional bits of good naval-aviation news: Defense Secretary Robert Gates wants to fund 31 F/A-18s in the fiscal year 2010 budget, and the Navy has "in place a contract and a way ahead for large unmanned aircraft."

Northrop Grumman is building for the Navy the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) unmanned aerial system, which is based on the airframe for the Air Force’s Global Hawk.

"I think there’s some great potential for (Air Force Chief of Staff) Gen. (Norton) Schwartz and (me) to work together on that," the CNO said. "From my standpoint, I think from Navy air, we’re OK."