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The case for a strong Navy

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U.S. Rep. J. Randy Forbes, R-Va., is chairman of the House Armed Services Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee and co-chairman of the Navy-Marine Corps Caucus. He spoke to the Trib about the detrimental effects of the Navy's shrinking size.

Q: The Navy's battle force fleet has declined considerably over the past two decades. How significant a risk does that pose to the nation's defense?

A: Not only do I feel it poses a threat to our nation's defense, but so does every major nation that studies sea power and studies navies. They believe very strongly that we will not have enough ships to do what the United States Navy needs to do. We had an independent panel of Republicans and Democrats that examined this, and (it) concluded we needed probably 346 ships. We've had testimony from the Navy that (said) to meet their requirements, we would need in excess of 400 ships. Today we have 285 and if current reductions in budgets continue, we could be down as low as 240.

Q: How soon will the Navy be down to that number?

A: It's hard to project, but let me give you a couple of touchstones. In 2007, the Navy was able to meet over 90 percent of the requirements of our combat commanders around the world. This year we will meet about 51 percent of those requirements. The Navy (has) a chart of ships they (plan) to build, but many of them won't be completed or built until 2038. Their projected cost to do even this very limited shipbuilding program would be about $18.8 billion a year. The Congressional Budget Office says they are off by about $4 billion; it's more like $22.8 billion.

But the Navy's shipbuilding costs for the last 30 years has averaged only $14.8 billion. So how do you make up that gap between the $14.8 billion that you've been averaging and the $18.8 billion that you need to do this very limited plan? We are on a rapid decline in the number of ships we have, and we have a very modest shipbuilding plan that we don't believe gets us where we need to be. They haven't put enough in the budget and there won't be enough money in the budget for the next 30 years to make that any more than a pipe dream.

Q: What are your largest concerns regarding an undersized Navy?

A: When you look at the amount of money the Russians are now spending (on defense), the amount of money the Chinese are now spending (on defense), I think that's the first big concern. The second thing is that 80 to 90 percent of all of the commerce in the world goes across the waterways. If we don't have guaranteed access to keep those waterways open, it could have an enormous impact on our economy.

The final thing is that we are getting fewer and fewer places where we can have land-based facilities around the world anymore, which means if we are going to project our power, we are going to have to have a strong Navy to be able to do that.

Q: So you'd advise the nation to stop being penny-wise and pound foolish when it comes to the Navy?

A: I would. But even more so — I have no problem if you or anyone else disagrees with me after you've done the analysis, but nobody is doing the analysis. What we are finding now is that the budgets are completely driving our defense strategy, where it should be our defense strategy is driving how much money we are putting into the budget for defense.

Eric Heyl is a staff writer for Trib Total Media (412-320-7857 or eheyl@tribweb.com).

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