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Sequestration and ‘Toxic Political Environment’ on Capitol Hill Could Hurt Defense, Senator Says

New strategy supports need for high-end surface combatants

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), called for continued construction of multi-mission surface combatants during an address to the Surface Navy Association, which held its annual symposium in Crystal City, Va., Jan. 11-13.

Collins is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, and is the ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security Committee. Both the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, which repairs nuclear submarines, and General Dynamics Bath Iron Works, which builds destroyers for the U.S. Navy, are in her state.

Collins said that Congress passed a National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and appropriations bill last year that were good news for the surface warfare community. “Shipbuilding programs were funded to 99 percent of the president’s budget request, and we continued to reverse the trend of the 2000s when shipbuilding averaged a meager six new starts per year. These funding levels demonstrate Congress’s strong commitment to the industrial base and a combat capable surface navy. Based upon the Navy’s five-year projections from last year, we should average 11 new ship construction starts for the next four years.”

However, Collins said, Capitol Hill is currently a “toxic partisan environment that has continued to get worse.”

“The ramifications of this culture were epitomized in the ‘Supercommittee’s failure to propose reforms that would place our fiscal trajectory on a sustainable course despite the urgent need to do so,” she said.

“We now face automatic spending cuts that are slated to begin next year that would undoubtedly result in serious consequences for our national security,” Collins said.

Collins said cuts to defense that would occur under sequestration would be disproportionate. “The biggest driver of our long-term debt and deficits is not defense spending, it is the spending on entitlement and health care programs which continues to balloon on autopilot,” she said. “Defense has already taken a huge reduction in future spending.

Sequestration remains the giant sword of Damocles hanging over our collective head,” she said.

Collins noted that the growing “national debt is a security concern in its own right.”  She said the federal government spent $266 billion in interest payments. “This means we are spending more on interest on the national debt each month than we spend in a single year on naval shipbuilding. The implications of such spending habits are evident, and this is the budget crisis we face as a country.”

Collins said she has paid close attention to the new defense strategy document, “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense,” which was released by the Department of Defense Jan. 5, 2012. “I welcomed certain parts of the review, specifically the renewed focus on Asia-Pacific and the Middle East. But it is difficult to completely assess the president’s new defense strategy without knowing what he intends to propose for specific programmatic cuts and for the end strength and allocation of our forces. I will be looking to see how the new strategy is translated into resource decisions when the administration’s budget request is rolled out next month.

“The new strategy, when combined with comments made during the course of the last year, does, I think, offer three distinct commitments made by senior administration officials that affect surface warfare. They are:

  • A commitment to shipbuilding and the shipbuilding industrial base;
  • A commitment to maintaining a high-end combat capability; and
  • A commitment to focus on the Asia-Pacific region as the area of highest strategic priority.

In articulating these three commitments, the administration has rightly identified three of the top priorities for our national security in the 21st century,” Collins said.

“The last two commitments are among the greatest justifications for maintaining a strong and capable surface fleet, but this fleet can only materialize and be sustained by making good on the first commitment to shipbuilding and the fragile industrial base that supports it,” she said. “Our fleet begins in our nation’s public and private shipyards. I have always been a leading advocate for our shipyards, not only because of the great contribution Bath Iron Works makes to my home state of Maine, but also because a strong industrial shipbuilding base is a vital national asset. When Secretary [Leon] Panetta visited Electric Boat in Groton late last year, he described that it was the nation’s shipyards and factories that enabled the U.S. to ramp up armament production at the outbreak of World War II. He went on to say that the country should never lose this capability, and I could not agree with him more.

“If we lose the skills at our shipyards or they begin to atrophy, there is no guarantee that we can reestablish them quickly enough when they are needed the most,” she said. “I question whether building an average of only 1.5 destroyers per year is adequate to preserve the skills and the number of production workers needed for a secure and cost-efficient industrial base. I would also note that this procurement rate alone is insufficient to preserve competition between the two yards – competition which has worked to keep shipbuilding affordable for American taxpayers.”

“If we lose the skills at our shipyards or they begin to atrophy, there is no guarantee that we can reestablish them quickly enough when they are needed the most.”

Collins pointed to the importance of maintaining a strong cruiser-destroyer force with “high-end” capabilities such as ballistic-missile defense, open-ocean anti-submarine warfare, and strike warfare, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region, which will be the region of highest strategic priority.

“This strategy must have a strong maritime component, with combat capable ships on station throughout the region,” Collins said.

Building a large number of ships with limited combat capability at the expense of increasing the number of ships with higher capability is a Pyrrhic victory,” she said, drawing a comparison to the Navy’s littoral combat ship, now being built in large numbers, and the guided missile destroyers built in her state.

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Capt. Edward H. Lundquist, U.S. Navy (Ret.) is a senior-level communications professional with more than...