The Navy must balance the capabilities of legacy platforms like cruisers while conducting modernization and building new capabilities, House Armed Services Committee Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee Ranking Member Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.) said Wednesday.

“There’s always going to be a struggle between maintaining legacy systems and making sure that we have what’s necessary for the future. And I would argue there has to be a number of different efforts ongoing,” Wittman said during the annual McAleese FY 2022 Defense Programs Conference.

Wittman underscored first he believes defense spending must be maintained plus 3 percent for inflation. The FY ‘21 budget was about $740 billion so he said this year the goal would be $753 billion.

“The president’s budget is under that,” he said. “I believe we need to fight to make sure we get it to that level because if not, in some place you’re going to need to take out resources, that is absolutely unacceptable, we have to stay on that path.”

However, Wittman said the services also need to look hard at saving money.

He said the Navy and other services have gone through a scrubbing of their budget “to find places where there is duplication, trying to find areas where things are being done and asking the question do we really need to continue to do those things. All the service branches are going to have to find savings within their own budgets to take those dollars and plow them back into modernization. That’s the way you’re going to be able to move the curve to the left.”

However, Wittman argued the services “need to go top to bottom and be really, really self-reflective on that and be self-critical and say…are these things that we absolutely have to do? And then take those dollars and plow them back into the things that we see we need to happen.”

Wittman also expressed a skeptical note on the Navy’s 2020 plans to retire assets like the older Ticonderoga-class cruisers and dock landing ships (LSDs).

“As the Navy’s looking at reducing force structure – they’re looking at some things that I think we ought to question…if you reduce the number of cruisers that they propose, we’re going to lose 1,200 missile tubes. The question is how does that get replaced? And if you’re going to completely remove them…well we’re going to wait four, five years until we get the capacity back. That’s not acceptable.”

Wittman also said if the LSD numbers are reduced as planned all at once, “we lose 25 percent of our forcible entry capabilities. Unacceptable.”

He said the Navy should transition away from those capabilities “the right way.” This means as cruisers and their missile tubes are retired, “How are we going to replace them? How are we not going to have a slope that goes loss of capability, flat spot, and then increasing capability?”

Wittman said in that kind of situation, U.S. adversaries will see the flat lower capability as an opportunity to overtake U.S. capabilities. 

“Instead what we have to say is, “here’s the transition…as we retire older systems and bring into place newer systems, how do we make sure that those lines converge very, very quickly. That’s going to be key.”

Wittman admitted these are difficult decisions and there will have to be “some heart-to-heart discussion” in Congress about how to properly balance funding while the Pentagon will require tough decisions on how to balance current and future risk.

Wittman’s position on cruisers matches statements made by Vice Chair of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.) in March. Luria said she felt the Navy’s Battle Force 2045 plan did not adequately explain how it decided on the number of each ship type in the force and was particularly skeptical of plans to retire ships like the cruisers (Defense Daily, March 16).

However, last month Chief of Naval Operation Adm. Mike Gilday said while he wants a robust public debate about the future fleet, he argued against maintaining the cruisers for their Vertical Launch System (VLS) missile cells (Defense Daily, April 5).

Gilday said they need to discuss “does it make more sense to hang on with the cruisers that are well past their 30-year service life, continue to pour millions of dollars into upkeeping those vessels at the expense of what the White House has directed that we divest of legacy and invest in new platforms.”

“We should have that debate over whether we should put that next dollar into a 33-year old cruiser or whether we should invest in the Flight III DDGs that we’re building down in Pascagoula, Miss. We ought to have that debate,” Gilday continued.

Gilday argued they cannot just count VLS tubes and be “satisfying ourselves that that’s a sole metric we’re going to look at.”