WASHINGTON — The man U.S. President Donald Trump chose to lead the Navy he pledged to build up to 350 ships doesn't sound confident that a shipbuilding surge is going to happen.

Richard Spencer, a former U.S. Marine Corps pilot who spent the bulk of his career in private finance, told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee that he thought 355 ships sounded like a nice goal but suggested that capabilities were more important than capacity.

The panel voted Thursday to send Spencer to a confirmation vote in the full Senate. 

"The 355 is a good number for people to focus on," Spencer said in his Tuesday confirmation hearing. "Do we know exactly what the mix is? I think, since we're talking out a decade, we might not know, and we shouldn't know right now, because we have evolving technologies." 

"What I will tell you is that whether it's a 355-ship or not, what we also want to get our head around is, can we have a capacity number but have a capability that's even greater than that, so have the capability of a 355 that might be a 300-ship Navy," Spencer said.

Spencer said the use of unmanned technologies could offset some of the ships the U.S. Navy said it needed in its recent force structure assessment that set the bar for its ship count at 355.

That answer raised alarms in some circles where building a 355-ship Navy is a high priority. Spencer’s backpedaling on the Navy’s own stated goal of 355 ships was a similar dance to the one performed by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis when pressed in June about the larger fleet.

Mattis has prioritized filling readiness gaps in the current fleet over building ships, but some members of Congress and Navy observers believe Spencer should throw his whole weight behind shipbuilding, including with the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee’s Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee, Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va.

"[Secretary-select Spencer’s] comments the other day in the SASC, I think, need some refinement," Wittman said. "I think being ambivalent about 355 ships is not where the SecNav needs to be. … He has too much of the Washington disease of being soft — well, 350 may be a good number, and we’re going to do all this other stuff, these complimentary pieces."

"I think you need to be strong and unambivalent as a signal to industry, as a signal to our adversaries that this is where we’re going to go. … Hopefully, as time comes along, he will see things from that perspective."

Capabilities vs. Capacity

The debate over capacity — the number of ships available to perform missions — versus capability, or how effective the weapons and systems on those ships are, is a carry-over from the Obama administration. During the waning days of the last administration, the debate between Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Navy Secretary Ray Mabus turned downright ugly.

Prior to leaving office, Carter ordered Mabus to cut $17 billion from the Navy’s budget over the five-year plan in the fiscal year 2017 budget and invest in more lethal weapons over shipbuilding. Mabus defied the order and sent up a budget that added money to the shipbuilding budget. Mabus had long argued that shipbuilding cuts were the least reversible thing the Navy could do with its budget.

Since taking office, Mattis has been focused on filling readiness gaps and getting the fleet the country already has back to peak readiness. Mattis told the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday that the Navy needs a larger fleet but that the readiness deficit created by years of overuse and budget cuts had to be addressed first.

"The challenge is that we're in a position right now where we've got to get the fleet back to sea that we have now," Mattis said. "We're trying to address this, trying to eat this elephant one bite at a time."

Getting to a larger fleet would require annual budget growth of about 5 percent, Mattis told the members, which under the Budget Control Act would be impossible.

Wittman, along with his Senate seapower counterpart, Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., have been vocal advocates for the 355-ship Navy, recently introducing a bill that makes it national policy to maintain a 355-ship Navy.

The Securing the Homeland by Increasing our Power on the Seas Act, known as the SHIPS Act, was introduced in June and is still in the committee.

To some observers, the focus on readiness is misplaced and not aligned with the promises made by candidate Trump, who pledged to build a 350-ship Navy.

"I think this 350-ship Navy is in desperate trouble," said Bryan McGrath, a retired destroyer skipper and consultant with The FerryBridge Group. "Everyone has to first understand that we are 32 ships short of the Obama administration’s goal of 308 ships. And just getting there in the budget environment that prevails in Washington is going to be a hard slog."

For McGrath, a longtime advocate for a larger fleet who contributed to one of the force structure assessments the Navy used to set the 355-ship goal, Spencer’s backpedaling was disappointing.

"I think it was unimpressive," McGrath said. "I think his testimony did not convince me that Mr. Spencer understands the value of sea power to this country’s security and prosperity."

"When you blithely dismiss the political notion of a 350-ship Navy and say it could be 300 with some unmanned capabilities, you are not doing the job of the secretary of the Navy. The job of the secretary of the Navy is to ensure that everyone knows why we have the Navy, what it does for our security and prosperity and how underinvesting in that Navy is disproportionately bad for the country."

Joe Gould in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.

David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.

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