Randy Forbes, who represents a portion of the Tidewater region that includes the US Navy's largest naval base and shipbuilding giant Huntington Ingalls, has long branched out to express concerns about defense issues far beyond his home ground. The nearly-released mark of the Seapower subcommittee's 2017 naval budget reflects Forbes' desire to increase naval spending into Reagan-era territory. By adding more than $2 billion to the Obama administration's request, Forbes would raise shipbuilding levels to $20 billion a year and beyond – numbers not seen since the 1980s. He spoke April 20 just as the Seapower bills were being made public.
Your subcommittee's proposals are in keeping with the general push in the House Armed Services Committee for increased military spending. What are your expectations this ambitious bill will carry through the legislative year?
I am very confident that you will see it go out of the House. And I am actually pretty optimistic we're going to see it go through the Senate. We've got a high degree of optimism on this mark.
Even if the $20 billion level is reduced, you're certainly socializing that level of shipbuilding. Is that also a goal?
We are putting it out there and I think people are embracing this very strongly. This is setting a check valve as to shipbuilding. It is also important that this is the highest level of shipbuilding funding since the Reagan era. I hope it is a down payment on the 350-ship Navy. [And] it is important for the rest of the world to look and see I'm not going quietly into the night with the dismantling of the Navy and we're going to begin turning this around.
You foresee $20 billion-plus annual shipbuilding requests for the foreseeable future.
Where is the money coming from?
You've heard [HASC] Chairman [Mac] Thornberry talk about the need for a higher end for national defense. If we get the dollars he is talking about then we are going to get those dollars in some form. The other thing is over a longer period of time we have to continue to look at efficiencies. Many of the things in this mark actually do those efficiencies. [With the SSBN(X) Ohio Replacement Program submarine] we get to buy twelve boats for the price of 11. [With] Fire Scout [unmanned helicopter], for four more we pay $70-plus million for one, we get four more for another $50 million -- that is a crazy good deal. But I think -- no buts about it -- we need higher ends for a national defense. I think the country is realizing that now. And we've talked about we only need a shift of about 1.5 percent to be able to do all the shipbuilding we need.
A shift inside the budget?
I've always talked about raising that top line. But even if we didn't you could have adjustments in that budget that could build ships.
This is a major election year, where everything is political. Is this a Republican initiative? Is this something that can come from across the aisle?
First of all, I will tell you this is a Republican initiative. I hope this is a Democrat initiative. But our subcommittee is very bipartisan in how it acts, how it functions. That is not just language -- this is a bipartisan mark. This is along the lines of people who believe strongly in defending and protecting the country. It is something that is going to be embraced by both the Republican and the Democratic parties because it is an American issue not a partisan issue.
You propose buying an aircraft carrier every four years. Doesn't that make it harder to pay for? The Navy had moved to five years for affordability reasons. And you want to do this in the 2020s when the SSBN(X) submarine will be in full acquisition.
Actually we think it will reduce the price because of efficiency. If we get these [production] lines running the way they can, ultimately it's going to be a cost saver for us. But we have to look at all the projections. By 2040 we'll be down to a 10-carrier fleet. I think about three-fourths of the members of Congress realize that is a dangerous place for us to be. I think the Pentagon realizes that. I think the good news is both the industrial base and the Navy have realized that this four-year turnaround time is a very doable time frame.
Carriers are intended for a 50-year lifespan. The viability of the carrier is being debated in light of new and growing threats from the Chinese and elsewhere. Yet you see the viability of the aircraft carrier worthy of the investment, especially across the 21st century.
Not just me, but I think the United States Navy sees that same viability. I think most military analysts think that. There are challenges to the carriers just like there are challenges to Guam, to cyber. But we are not going to say we are pulling out of Guam. We are not going to not use computers anymore. I think what we do is roll up our sleeves and say how do we overcome these challenges. Equally important, our bases are getting fewer and fewer across the world, but the threats are getting larger. The most important platform we have in keeping the conflict from going from 0 to 3 is a carrier and a carrier strike group. The most important thing we have to win that conflict is our surge capacity with our carriers. We simply can't do that if we get down to 10 carriers.
There is talk of basing another carrier and an air wing in the western Pacific, perhaps Japan. What's your view on that?
No, I don't think we need to do that. I think the analysis doesn't show that. The analysis shows we need to have carrier coverage dependent not on where they're home ported but on the number of carriers we have. So I don't see the need to do that, and you start to look at a lot of cost that may make it prohibitive.
You're also asking the Navy to study how to keep building two attack submarines per year in those years when SSBN(X) is funded and maybe even three, which could make four subs a year in the 2020s.
In 2029 we are going to be down to 41 subs. Right now the requirement minimum is 48. I think that [after the Navy's current force assessment is complete the] number is going to be higher than 48. Then you realize that regardless what number we put on paper the Chinese are looking at our limits and they're probably going to double what we have. The only way we close the gap is by adding an additional submarine beginning in 2021. I feel very comfortable that that is the right way to help close that delta. I feel very comfortable the industrial base can handle it. And I think the Navy is beginning to feel very comfortable that we can do that.
An attack boat runs about $2 billion plus. To balance that plus-up would you support a reduction in the number of surface ships built every year?
Two things I emphasize are the false choices [the Office of the Secretary of Defense] was trying to make us make between capacity and capability, and I'm not going to let them also give us a false choice between surface ships and submarines. Weaknesses are weaknesses, vulnerabilities are vulnerabilities. I've seen these threat levels increase. I've seen the Russians buzz us at 30 feet above our ships. I've seen the Iranians shooting missiles across our bows. I'm seeing them capture our soldiers. I'm seeing Chinese aggression in South China Sea. I'm seeing the North Koreans trying to get a ballistic missile with nuclear capability to hit this country. None of that suggests to me that I need fewer surface ships or that I need fewer submarines.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter directed the Navy last year to reduce LCS procurement to one ship this year, although the Navy is requesting two ships based on industrial concerns. You restore a third LCS in 2017. You would appear to be directly at odds with Carter's appreciation of the LCS program.
I am directly at odds with Secretary Carter's lack of a study or analysis to suggest we can change that. I want to make sure no one sat back with a pencil and said we need more money here, cut these programs out. And so far the studies and analysis from the Department of Defense and the Navy say we need 52 small surface combatants. You can't just sit back and erase those studies and say okay now I think 40 is the right number. If you want to do something else tell us what else you are going to do. And if you want to have a different analysis, do the analysis but at least give us the facts not just your opinion.
Do you still support a down select on LCS to just one shipbuilder?
No. I don't think we need to do a down select at this particular point in time and as long as we don't need to do it I think we can keep both of these yards going.
You also are trying to add another amphibious ship in this budget, either an unrequested 13th LPD-17-class amphibious transport or a new LX(R), a ship the Navy isn't planning on buying until 2021. What is your thinking there?
The Marine Corps feels they need it. Not just want it, need it. We are very concerned about their amphibious capabilities. The other thing is we are moving along pretty well with how we are building those LPD 17 ships. You talk about efficiencies and costs it just makes sense while these [production] lines are doing well why cool them off, why have the cost of getting them started up again when we can go ahead and produce ships we know the Marine Corps is going to need. This is something the Navy is going to embrace and we have given them the flexibility here to do it. We don't want to break that rhythm.
The Navy is proposing yet another variation on the cruiser modernization plan, the program to take 11 cruisers out of service, modernize them and return them to active duty. Congress has been clear in its desire to have the work done in sequence and limit the number of cruisers out of service at any one time, yet the Navy now proposes to induct all 11 cruisers into modernization by the end of 2017. What's your reaction?
We just went back and took a page out of Ronald Reagan's book Trust and Verify. We said if that is what you want to do let's just prove it. So what we have done is kind of put a lasso around the Secretary of Defense's office and said as soon as the Navy certifies they've got all these under contract we are going to let you have your dollars, and until you do we want you to put a little skin in the game. We are just going to take your word that you are committed to doing this. If they're committed to doing this they shouldn't have any problem with this provision at all.
But you know, when they first came over here they were all gung ho about euthanizing these cruisers -- but every single one of them admitted they needed the cruisers. They were euthanizing because somebody at [the Office of Management and Budget] told them they needed to take these cruisers out. I don't want OMB running the national defense of this country. Then we said we are not going to let you do it. Of course they got religion, came back and said you misunderstood us, what we really want to do is modernize and not euthanize them. So they did the 2-4-6 program, which was their program by the way. [The 2-4-6 program allows the Navy to modernize 2 cruisers a year, remain under modernization for no more than 4 years, and allow no more than 6 ships to undergo modernization at any one time.]
Now we are just saying okay, we are going to do your program. We are going to take you at your word, but you need to put your money where your mouth is. And as long as you are committed to doing this fine, but we are going to find out whether they are or not. And that is all we do in this mark, to say we are going to hold your money until you've got certifications, you're doing what you are saying you are going to do.
So you reject this latest proposal for all 11 ships to be out of service by 2017?
Yes. We think we need these cruisers. I want to make sure this is not a ploy just to take them out to meet some sort of artificial budget requirement that somebody somewhere other than the Navy has imposed upon them.
This situation has been going on for some years now, and Adm. John Richardson has succeeded Adm. Jon Greenert as Chief of Naval Operations (CNO). Why is it you continue to question their sincerity?
We have indications from them that this is driven by dollars and cents, not driven by some new plan they have. I do not question the CNO's integrity or his forthrightness, nor did I previous CNOs, but I think this is something driven outside the Navy itself.
At-sea incidents and encounters with China, Russia, Iran and North Korea continue, often with US ships simply watching as jets zoom close by and missiles are launched over their bow. How do you think the Navy is doing in responding to these multiple threats?
I don't think the Navy makes the decision oftentimes on what the response is. I think that is an administrative decision that comes from the commander in chief. I think if the Navy had its options the Navy would have had a little stronger response when you look at, for example the South China Sea and what the Chinese have done there. I know that is something they felt we should be stronger at. I am very concerned about some aspects of the readiness that we have. And quite honestly I can't tell you if it is based on specific incidents right now or if it is over all the Navy.
I do think though that it is imperative for us to make sure we are meeting the needs of the Navy. When I look at just a couple of snapshots -- one snapshot is [Pacific Command commander] Admiral [Harry] Harris telling us that he is only getting 62 percent of the submarines he needs. That worries me. When I hear that in 2007 we could meet 90 percent of our combatant commanders validated requirement, and this year we will meet about 43 percent, that bothers me as well. And when I see reports that our Marines flying our planes are having to go into museums to get parts that gives me serious pause. That is why we think this mark is so important, to tell Congress, tell the world we are turning this around and we are serious about it.
By Christopher P. Cavas in Washington