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Gates Puts Navy on Notice for Budget Cuts

GUANTANAMO BAY — Since I’m at a Naval base, it bears calling attention during a break in the Khadr hearing to a speech Defense Secretary Gates gave this afternoon about the future of U.S. seapower. It’s a cri de coeur for the Navy and the Marine Corps to confront “hard truths.” Translation: Get ready for budget cuts.

Gates didn’t announce any, to be clear. And he gave tepid support to the Navy’s 30-year plan for shipbuilding as “a step in the right direction.” But the speech is primarily about telling the Navy that it can’t expect its budget to go up any time soon; that no active-or-potential Naval competitor can even come close to matching the Navy’s surface or submarine capabilities; and that it needs to invest more in (cheaper) ships and technologies for close-to-shore activities. Expect these two passages to be endlessly chewed over in Naval circles over the next few days.

Current submarines and amphibious ships are three times as expensive as their equivalents during the 1980s – this in the context of an overall shipbuilding and conversion budget that is 20 percent less. Just a few years ago, the Congressional Budget Office projected that meeting the Navy’s shipbuilding plan would cost more than $20 billion per year – double the shipbuilding budget of recent years, and a projection that was underfunded by some 30 percent. It is reasonable to wonder whether the nation is getting a commensurate increase in capability in exchange for these spiraling costs. …

I do not foresee any significant top-line increases in the shipbuilding budget beyond current assumptions. At the end of the day, we have to ask whether the nation can really afford a Navy that relies on $3 to 6 billion destroyers, $7 billion submarines, and $11 billion carriers.

Apparently Gates will expand this critique far beyond the Navy. He announced that on Saturday, he’ll make a speech on “issues surrounding political will and the Defense budget.”

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