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Outside View: Navy costs crisis

By WINSLOW WHEELER, UPI Outside View Commentator   |   July 3, 2008 at 10:09 AM
WASHINGTON, July 2 (UPI) -- Since 2001 the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps have received $174 billion more than was then anticipated for the period 2001-2009. This "plus-up," which does not include the additional $95 billion the Navy and Marine Corps also received to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, has not helped the Navy on its key force structure measure, the number of ships in the active duty combat fleet.

In early 2001 the U.S. Department of Defense anticipated an approximate budget of $900 billion for the Navy and Marines for the period 2001 to 2009. Not counting $95 billion subsequently received for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Navy/Marine Corps "base" -- non-war -- budget was increased by $174 billion to $1.07 trillion.

Did this additional $174 billion reverse a central trend that has plagued the U.S. Navy for decades? Did the extra $174 billion stem the receding tide of a shrinking and aging fleet?

The opposite has been the case: The U.S. Navy's fleet of active duty combat ships has sharply declined over time. Overall, the U.S. fleet is today as small as at any point in the post-World War II period. From a 1953 high of 835 combat ships, it persistently hovers in the 21st century at about 300.

The budget, however, shows a very different story. There have been ups and downs, but the overall trend is for it to increase in "real" dollars. In recent years the U.S. Navy's budget has increased sharply, mostly for expenses not related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Thus, at significantly increased spending, we have a combat Navy that is as small as it has ever been since World War II.

The existing "plan" is for these trends to continue. The U.S. Navy is seeking higher spending levels while its fleet will remain hovering around 300. As this plan progresses, the average age of the ship inventory will increase, as documented by various studies.

Today, as it has each year since the mid-1990s, the U.S. Navy is seeking to supplement its own budget with "extracurricular" money, mostly in the form of a "wish list" that it eagerly sends to Congress each year after the charade of a congressional "request" for it.

Citing the shrunken size of the fleet, the Navy seeks $7 billion more than it requested in its official budget, $149 billion, which is an amount well above the Navy's post-World War II average. Taking into account the amount by which the 2009 Navy budget has already been increased over and above the extrapolated 2001 plan for 2009, $37.1 billion, it is apparent that the U.S. Navy is actually seeking a $44.1 billion "plus-up."

Nothing in the U.S. Navy's acquisition strategy is reversing the long-term trend of fewer and older ships for more money. Even the Navy's new "low-cost" Littoral Combat Ship has roughly doubled in cost in recent years. As yet untested and unproven, both designs for this clearly needed "brown water" capability have a long way to go before they demonstrate they are cost effective and should be purchased in any numbers beyond two test ships.

The next presidential administration will have to radically change the thinking in U.S. Navy shipbuilding, if not Navy acquisition leadership itself, if the long-term negative trends in the fleet's size and cost are to be altered.

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(Winslow T. Wheeler is the director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information, a Washington think tank. Previously, he worked on Capitol Hill for senators from both political parties and for the Government Accountability Office.)

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(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

© 2008 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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