The leaders of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces both support the U.S. Navy’s assessment of increasing the fleet to 355 ships but recognize a decades-long and difficult path to convincing fellow members of Congress, they said Tuesday.

Chairman Rob Wittman (R-Va.) and Ranking Member Joe Courtney (D-Conn.) both agreed with the Navy’s assessment to grow the fleet to 355 ships but are cognizant of the budgetary, congressional, and time factors in moving to that large of an increase, they said at a Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) event.

Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.), chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces
Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.), chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces

The Navy first concluded it needs to boost the size of its fleet to 355 ships in the Force Structure Assessment (FSA), released in December 2016 (Defense Daily, Jan. 16, 2016). Separately, President Donald Trump said during the 2016 election campaign that he would expand the Navy to 350 ships.

Wittman referenced a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report his panel requested, released last month, that said to achieve this kind of increase in ships would require spending about $26.6 billion a year over the next 30 years. This would be 40 percent more than Congress appropriated for ship construction in fiscal year 2016 and 60 percent more than what the Navy has averaged over the past 30 years (Defense Daily, April 25).

The study means it would take at least $5 bilion to $6 billion more per year “in order for us to get on the glide path to 355 ships, so I still think it’s going to beg for us to have a discussion about are there enough dollars not just in the total defense budget,” Wittman said.

Wittman said they would not seek to increase the fleet in less than 20 years, which the CBO report outlined was possible, but focused on a 20-30 year timeframe for the ship increase.

He added that the biggest challenge is analyzing the 355 ship number to determine what the architecture of the Navy looks like at this level including types of ships, how many of each class, what they are doing, and where the demands on them are.

“And then for us to be able to set the proper glide path to get to 355 we need to understand what capacity is in the industry, how much is there, what can they build to, how do we make sure that we create the certainty to where the industry is willing to invest,” Wittman said.

Courtney noted the 355 number is not an administrative or partisan agenda.

“I think that’s really an important point for everybody to think about, which is that the process that got to 355 began, actually, a couple of years ago,” he said.

He also said that the when discussing “the magnitude or the undertaking to get to 355, I think it’s important for people to recognize” this is a generational change that supersedes any individual administration, Congress, or party.

Courtney said the committee members have to make the case for increasing the Navy fleet on a strategic level when trying to convince their congressional colleagues.

“No one is going to be very impressed with sort of a local parochial argument, and they shouldn’t be,” Courtney said.

Wittman said taking Congress members from outside the House Armed Services Committee on travel with them is one of the most effective tactics to “get other members plugged in” beyond classified secure briefings.

“Get them on the deck of an aircraft carrier, get them on a sub embark, get them on the deck of a surface ship and what I have found is when we’re able to do that, they come back convinced. And the strictest of budget hawks now come back and all of a sudden have a defense hawk mentality, which is good.”

“Just to see that and to see the dedication that our sailors and Marines have there, to me, is critical. And it tells a better story than any words that come out of my mouth,” Wittman added.

He highlighted the most important types of members to take on those trips are people from the budget and appropriations committees.

“So the challenge for us is so many members so little time. So we just have to do more of that. But that’s the way we really can get folks to our side.”

The chairman also highlighted a concern for ship maintenance. He welcomed the new budget agreement but “one of the things that concerns me are the dollars that go into maintaining ships. I’m not certain that we have all the dollars necessary to be able to take all of the 14 ships that are up for service availabilities into the maintenance stream.”

Similarly, when speaking about the need to invest in public shipbuilding yards that are underperforming, “we place a lot of emphasis on building these ships but we have to place as much, if not more, emphasis in maintaining those ships,” he said.

“Because as we grow this Navy we have to be able to maintain those ships and the hiccups we’ve seen in the last two or three years with ship maintenance on a rollercoaster ride where we have a wave of ships that come into the yards and then that work disappears is not the formula to sustain a skilled workforce, either in public or private yards,” he added.