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The Hill - Charting a Sea Power Revitalization

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By Rep. J. Randy Forbes (R-Va.)

The future of American security and international influence will undoubtedly be tied to the strength of American sea power.

Sustaining the rules-based international order that has enhanced our security, prosperity and freedom since the late 1940s requires an American Navy that can maintain our global presence in oceans and strategic chokepoints the world over. But absent a greater investment in shipbuilding, the trajectory of American sea power is set for a slow, painful decline in the decade ahead.

The naval buildup of the 1980s was so large and so enduring that it allowed the U.S. Navy to thrive for the next three decades. Today, many of the ships built during that period are meeting the end of their services lives, causing the size of the fleet to fall precipitously. This dilemma is confounded by the fact that we chose to chronically under-invest in our Navy during the "procurement holiday' of the 1990s and even over the last decade, as other national security demands took precedence.

What we are left with today is a shrinking fleet that, according to the Navy's own plans, will hover around just 290-300 ships over the coming two decades. This minimalist objective pales in comparison to the 346-ship fleet a bipartisan, independent panel of defense experts called for in 2010.

But even the Navy's plan is a fantasy if one is to assume they will only have available over the next thirty years the same shipbuilding dollars that they spent on average over the last thirty years - $16 billion. This average is roughly $4 billion below what the Navy and the Congressional Budget Office believe will be needed just to meet the Navy's 30-year shipbuilding plan.

The Navy has testified that to fill this shipbuilding shortfall in the years ahead it will require something akin to the national investment in sea power made during the 1980s.

Given the long-term nature of this challenge, it is not surprising that Washington prefers to gaze into the future and pretend the Navy's plans will miraculously be fulfilled at a later date.

This opinion says: "This year's budget may fall well short of our goals, but we will surely fix this shortfall when the time comes!"

Nonsense. Shipbuilding is a generational task. Just as our Navy benefited for decades after the robust growth of the 1980s, today's paltry trajectory, set by an underfunded shipbuilding budget, will hinder our Navy for decades to come.

Indeed, Washington too often shies away from the tough business of long-term planning. However, I believe we could take a step towards remedying this by seeing not just the Navy's shipbuilding plan for the future, but also a plan that offers a realistic expectation of what kind of Navy the nation will be getting if the Navy's budget stays flat. The consequences of this picture could be dire enough to help stimulate a new investment in shipbuilding. That is why in this year's Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee mark we asked the Navy to provide us with a report by March 1, 2014 that is based on a budget of $16 billion across the entire 30-year plan.

This is not a replacement for the current law that mandates an annual 30-year plan for shipbuilding. Instead, it is an effort to complement the current plan with a realistic projection for where our Navy could be headed and what the implications will be if we do not make an investment commensurate with our goals.

What size will our Navy shrink to if we continue to fund the shipbuilding budget at a flat level of funding? What trade-offs would the Navy suggest we make to the shipbuilding plan and what are the consequences of these decisions? How will this impact the shipbuilding industrial base? This complimentary 30-year shipbuilding plan should help us to answer these questions and more.

If the history of the coming decades will be dictated by maritime events - and I truly believe they will be - it is time for the nation to think holistically about its national security priorities and begin to forge a consensus about the importance of sufficiently investing in American sea power. Charting this new course will not happen in a single budget cycle or even a Five-Year Defense Plan. Like shipbuilding, it will require a sustained commitment that must be carefully nurtured year, after year, after year. Let's get to work.

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