The top defense civilian and military officials received a stern rebuke from members of the House Armed Services Committee during a Feb. 26 hearing for submitting a new budget request with reduced funds for shipbuilding.

HASC Seapower Subcommittee Chairman Joe Courtney (D-Conn.) lambasted Defense Secretary Mark Esper during the hearing, asking the status of a 30-year shipbuilding plan that was expected to be released with the fiscal year 2021 presidential budget request, and critiquing the actual funding request as too low for what the Navy says it requires to meet the needs of the National Defense Strategy (NDS).

“Congress needs headlights to see where you’re going because of the fact that shipbuilding is such a long game,” Courtney said. “[Ranking Member Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.)] and I asked on Feb. 12 for the shipbuilding plan. … When are we going to get that 30-year shipbuilding plan, which again is mandated by law?”

Esper told Courtney that he hasn’t seen the plan yet himself.

“I’m awaiting its presentation to me. It’s my report,” he said. “Once I have had a chance to review it and digest it … at the appropriate point in time, I will share with you what I believe our future force structure should look like.”

This response did not sit well with Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.), who chairs the HASC Readiness Subcommittee.

“When you submit your budget, you are to submit the shipbuilding plan, and for you to say you’re going to give it to us on your own good time and when you are ready, you are not in align with the law,” Garamendi said to Esper. “You are headed for a major brawl with this committee.”

Wittman also voiced his own concern for how the Navy will achieve its long-stated goal of 355 ships under the current budget proposal. Esper told Wittman that the Pentagon is considering issuing a legislative proposal that would provide authority for the Department to transfer expired Navy funds back into shipbuilding accounts, rather than sending them to the Treasury. The Pentagon could generate at least $1 billion a year for new ships that way, he said.

Still, lawmakers were not convinced that the FY ’21 budget request accurately reflected the needs of the Navy.

Courtney, who had voiced his concern about the proposed shipbuilding budget shortly after the request was released Feb. 10, made clear he was dismayed at the historically small funding request.

“I have been on the seapower committee for 14 years,” Courtney said. “You have to go back to the height of the surge [to the Middle East],when the Navy shipbuilding was a bill payer … to see such an anemic shipbuilding request from the administration here today.”

Courtney added that the request, which included $20 billion for eight new ships, was “a punch in the gut” to shipyard workers investing in the experience to build these ships, to the supply chain which has dwindled over the past two decades, and to combatant commanders who have been lobbying Congress for more ships in each of their posture hearings this past month.

He also pointed out that among the eight new ships that are designated in the Navy’s FY ’21 budget plan, one Flight II amphibious ship – LPD-31 – was actually funded and authorized in the FY ’20 budget, and two of the remaining seven are salvage ships.

“We’re not getting briefings in this committee about Russian tugboats or Chinese tugboats,” Courtney noted. “We in fact then are left with really five combatant ships.” He also warned of the impending reduction in attack submarines as the Navy prepared to retire its Los Angeles-class submarines.

“You don’t recover from a cut like this anytime soon,” he continued. “Your budget keeps us in that trough into the 2030s. … It just defies any analysis in terms of something that comports with the NDS.”

Esper emphasized that he is “a big believer” in attack submarines and in fact believes the Navy needs “more than what we planned for.”

But he stood by the service’s decision to funnel shipbuilding costs into ship maintenance, noting that a Government Accountability Office report last year revealed that over the past five years, 75 percent of U.S. military surface ships never left maintenance on time, meaning 19 ships in 2019 were unable to go to sea.

“We cannot have a hollow Navy,” Esper insisted.