By Emelie Rutherford

A shipbuilding-focused lawmaker said yesterday the Navy cannot expect to reach its stated goal of having a 313-vessel fleet any time in the near future, yet he will continue to push to boost the service’s annual ship-constructing budget by billions of dollars.

Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.), co-chair of the Congressional Shipbuilding Caucus, said at the Surface Navy Association Symposium in Arlington, Va., that “it’s unrealistic to believe …that this number of 313 is going to become a reality anywhere in the near future.”

An average of $25 billion per year over the next 30 years would have to be spent on the total shipbuilding budget, compared to approximately $14 billion annually in recent years, to build up to a 313-strong fleet, he said.

Wittman wants the fleet to grow to at least 313 ships. He said he and Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.), the other co-chair of the caucus and chairman of the House Armed Services Seapower subcommittee, are advocating to boost yearly shipbuilding funding to at least $20 billion.

“A transition from $14 billion to $20 billion within a very competitive defense budgeting effort I think would end up being extraordinary,” he said at the conference. “But you have my commitment that we will be (pushing for) that.”

Wittman said he and Taylor have talked to congressional and administration officials about how to reach the minimum-$20 billion goal.

“I’m a realist; I know that there’s going to be lots of competition there,” the Republican lawmaker said. “So what we have to be able to do is to make the very sound and I think substantive arguments about why it’s critical that we get there. And it goes back to making sure we have a platform to meet the future needs.”

He said he is concerned the Navy’s longterm shipbuilding plan is based on needs of today instead of those in the future.

For example, he suggested more attack submarines will be needed than currently planned because of the growth of China’s fleet, the increasing need for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platforms, and the proliferation of “asymmetric threats” such as semi-submersible vessels.

“Our shipbuilding plan is never going to stabilize unless both Congress and the administration make more realistic assumptions about the number and type of vessels we require, and then we’ve got to make the long-term financial commitment to acquire them,” he said.

Wittman added that even if the Navy received $25 billion a year, to grow to a 313-vessel fleet, “we’re still going to fall short.”

That’s because, he said, the service would still be below the required number of aircraft carriers in fiscal year 2013, attack submarines in 2020, guided-missile submarines in 2026, and ballistic-missile submarines in 2027.

Wittman also cited concerns with maintenance funding shortfalls for the surface Navy.

As the Navy appropriately continues to drive toward modernization, he said, “we have to be honest about what we can afford.”

“You have to have the number of ships out there,” he said. “It’s great that we’re building quality platforms, and we do the best job in the world at that. But at some point you’ve got to have the quantity there.”

Having a high quantity of ships is important, he said, when considering that the United States faces multiple “forces” in a post-Cold War era beyond just Russia, and now also has to consider nations such as China and India.

The “harsh reality,” Wittman said, is that without more top-line defense funding that benefits Navy shipbuilding, the service’s fleet will shrink to 275 ships, fewer than today.

Wittman told reporters he believes a 313-ship fleet is an appropriate size, as long as ships smaller than Littoral Combat Ships are not counted. While the Navy in recent years has cited the 313-fleet goal, Wittman noted rumblings that a forthcoming and revised 30-year shipbuilding plan will call for a 324-ship fleet.

Wittman said he is concerned about how the administration’s FY ’10 budget plan differed from the previous 30-year shipbuilding plan. President Barack Obama’s new administration did not provide an annual update to that plan early last year.

Lawmakers are anxiously waiting to receive from the Obama administration next month the shipbuilding plan, FY ’10 budget proposal, and report on the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR)

“We’ve been told for over a year that many of our concerns about the disparity between the top-line budget and the threats to national security will be addressed in the QDR,” Wittman said. “And while details are at a minimum with respect to the QDR, reports in the press give me and many of my fellow (House Armed Services) Committee members some pretty deep pause.”

He said he is troubled by suggestions the Pentagon may reduce the number of carrier battle groups and build fewer than two Virginia-class submarines per year. And, he said he hopes the Navy sticks to its new acquisition strategy for the Littoral Combat Ship.

Wittman also expressed concern about the program to replace the Ohio-class submarine consuming a large chunk of the shipbuilding budget, if it is not increased above $14 billion per year. He further said the Marine Corps’ need for amphibious vessels should not be “neglected by crowding of the Navy’s own shipbuilding priorities.”

The congressman told reporters he wonders if the Navy has enough DDG-51 destroyers for the administration’s new sea-based European missile defense plans. The Seapower subcommittee plans to address that issue in a hearing next week.