NATIONAL HARBOR — The chairman of the House seapower subcommittee said Wednesday the Navy needs to do a better job of explaining to the public the need for a 355-ship fleet.

The comments highlight the push and pull between seapower advocates on Capitol Hill and senior naval officials, who made it evident this week at the Sea-Air-Space Expo outside Washington, D.C., they did not want the Navy held to the 355-ship benchmark.

Rep. Rob Wittman, chair of the House Armed Services Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee, took aim at the muddiness around the messaging.

“I think if you get ambivalent about the number, it becomes difficult to communicate,” to the public, Wittman, R-Va., told reporters at the expo. “You have to say 355 is the number.”

He argued that 355 was pretty much the mean between a collection of the Navy’s fleet-size studies — and that articulating it makes a difference in both his push for a $26 billion shipbuilding account and for the shipbuilding industry’s planning efforts. The 2018 spending package contained $23.8 billion.

“This wasn’t just a number just a number that was pulled out of the air, this was an objectively reached number, and we think that ought to be the central part of the discussion,” Wittman said.

The Navy performed a 2016 Force Structure assessment that explains the requirement for a 355-ship fleet, but a subsequent Center for Strategic and International Studies report has raised doubts about whether the Navy can afford it, given that it struggles to control costs for its current 277-ship fleet.

Wittman did acknowledge the fears of naval officials, that the emphasis on a 355 ship fleet would eclipse the need for other systems, like unmanned platforms for instance.

“I would argue the Navy needs to be talking about the number, and what’s the composition of the number,” Wittman said. “What types of ships do you build? What’s the next generation of ships? What are the capabilities on board those ships? How do you mate those with unmanned systems?”

On Thursday, Wittman’s subpanel is set to host Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development, and Acquisition, James Geurts, and other Navy officials at a hearing titled “355 Ship Navy: Delivering the Right Capabilities.” Wittman said he would press officials on the matter.

“I think the Navy needs to be unambivalent about that number,” Wittman said.

Congress made achieving a 355-ship Navy a matter of national policy as part of the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act. Wittman, and his counterpart on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., have also called for the country to build 355 ships as soon as practicable.

Outside of fleet size, Wittman said his top priority for his subpanel’s portion of the upcoming 2019 defense policy bill would be setting the right mix of capabilities in the wake of DoD’s recent budget bonanza.

“As much as it sounds great to have all these additional resources, the demand in the short-term really exceeds the resources, so it’s really about trading priorities and say, what things can we wait a little bit longer to do,” Wittman said.

Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.

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