WASHINGTON, DC --- House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (D-MO) delivered the following remarks on the role of the U.S. Navy to the American Shipbuilding Association:
“Thank you, and a particular thank you to my friend Cindy Brown for inviting me to be with you. I think we need to be realistic about where our Navy is today, and where we can take it in the next few years. Right now, today, we have 283 battle force ships. This number is less than any time since 1916. That is right, we are a smaller Navy now than we have been for 93 years. We have fewer sailors than we have had since 1941.
“All this has occurred because our eyes have been elsewhere. During the Cold War, the Fleet was an indispensible asset. We of course had the Army positioned to repel the Soviets in Europe, and the Air Force was on constant vigil for a nuclear confrontation, but American power around the world was reflected by the Fleet, and the Fleet countered any and all attempts by the Soviets from exerting undue influence with their sizable naval force.
“All that changed after the fall of the Berlin Wall. We forgot that we are a Maritime nation. We forgot that lesson of history that only the nations with powerful navies are able to exert power and influence and when a navy disappears, so does that nation’s power.
“So where are we on that timeline? I submit we are on a bad glide slope, but not so far committed that we cannot recover. I believe that we can and we must rebuild our fleet. But we need to build the right mix of vessels and we need to build vessels that are affordable. We must not lose our ability to keep our trade lanes open.
“People scoff at talk like this, but for the past year and a half one of the busiest trade routes in the world has been plagued by pirates operating from the failed state of Somalia. And until very recently we have been unable to do much about these pirates because we lacked a number of capabilities, including the numbers of vessels needed to patrol the Gulf of Aden.
“But this concern extends far beyond the problem of piracy. What happens if our fleet atrophies and another power decides to embargo the raw materials that we need? Russia did this to Europe just two months ago when they cut off the natural gas pipeline to the Ukraine. Could this happen to us for the delivery of oil or other raw materials we need? Absolutely; but only if we do not have a Fleet capable of deterring these actions.
“So what Navy do we need? A big heavy battle force Navy ready to slug it out with a peer? A lighter, more littoral Navy capable of asymmetric warfare? Both? These are the hard decisions that the Navy and the Congress are grappling with right now.
Unfortunately, the Navy has for a number of years now been trying to build the new Fleet without much success. The Arsenal Ship program was cancelled, the original DD21 concept was cancelled and it reemerged as DDG 1000. The Littoral Combat Ship program has failed to produce the affordable, multi-capable ship which was envisioned.
“The frank and honest assessment is that there are not the resources to build the ships in the Navy 30 year shipbuilding plan. The money is just not there, not there by 5 to 6 billion dollars a year. And that’s a lot of money.
“What then should we do? Well, we would like the Navy to do what the Navy keeps saying makes the most sense: build affordable ships which leverage on commonality with other ship programs and build them in numbers that allow for economies of purchase and investment in infrastructure.
That is a start, but it continues with the debate on the role of the government in ensuring that our shipyards, which only build Navy ships, have the resources to invest in capital improvements to build the ships for the least possible cost.
“We have already seen dividends in the Virginia class submarine program capital improvement initiative, which is commonly referred to as CAPEX, and we will soon see major efficiencies because of the Bath Iron Works Ultra Hall facility. Both these major investments occurred with government funding, and in the end the taxpayer benefits for lower cost ships.
“I am not yet sure what the shipbuilding request will look like this year. I think it essential that we build at least 10 ships, but it is important that we get the right 10 ships built. There are some very new threats out there to our Fleet and we need to make sure that the Navy can counter the emerging technologies that might put our carriers at risk even far out at sea.
The debate about the future surface Navy needs to end this year. A decision needs to be made. After a decision is made that both the Department and the Congress can support, we need to fund the surface construction program at the level necessary to restore our Fleet. Whether that number is 313 ships or 340 ships, we need to get there.
“Of course, we don’t get there as a country without the support of the people in this room—the suppliers and shipbuilders who build our vessels. This effort must be a team effort between the Department, the contractors, and the Congress. However, we will never succeed without reasonable cost and schedule estimates from both the government and industry. And I understand that it is very difficult to give a cost and schedule estimate for just one ship, without knowing if you get to build a second ship. Or having the Navy change specifications after contract award and design completion.
“But I am optimistic, there are great Americans in this room and there are great Americans across the river in the Pentagon. The right solutions will be found. We will build these ships and we will restore our ability to maintain total sea control anywhere on the world’s oceans.
“I thank you for what you do for the country, and I thank you for inviting me to speak with you today.”