Navy's ship plan faces rough seas
First of two parts

To hear Navy officials tell it, shipbuilders like Northrop Grumman Newport News are finally heading for good times.

After dwindling to its smallest size in about a century, the Navy's 279-ship fleet will grow to 313 ships over the next decade.

A new aircraft carrier will be purchased every four or five years, and submarine production will double.

But outside the Navy, who believes it?

Not budget experts, who warn that the billions of additional dollars needed in coming years are unlikely to materialize.

Not independent naval analysts, who say the Navy's 30-year shipbuilding plan is based on too many optimistic assumptions about cost growth.

And certainly not some pivotal members of Congress, who have blasted the plan as "pure fantasy."

Outside the corridors of the Pentagon, a remarkable consensus is building in Washington that the Navy's shipbuilding program — promising a stable modernized fleet for decades to come at affordable costs — is no longer credible.

"There are very few people outside the Navy who believe the plan can be executed," said Robert Work, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

With no sign of crisis on the horizon, the state of the Navy's fleet — and the shipbuilding program needed to support it — has won little attention nationally.

As the nation enters its sixth year of war in Iraq, defense talk in Washington has focused understandably on the strains of an overstretched Army and Marine Corps.

But unless the shipbuilding program is reworked, policymakers say, there's little hope the Navy will have the ships it says it needs to meet future threats.

"For over a hundred years, we've relied on a strong Navy to project power and to maintain peace," said Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., chairman of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee. "I've said repeatedly that the Navy's current shipbuilding request is grossly inadequate to meet the goal of a 313-ship fleet while maintaining our naval superiority."

By all accounts, the Navy's challenge is daunting. To sustain even a 300-ship fleet, the Navy would need to buy 10 ships a year, on average, because the typical warship lasts about 30 years.

The 10-ship quota was easily exceeded during the Reagan defense buildup of the 1980s. At the height of the boom, in 1986, the Navy bought 20 ships.

But since 1993, the Navy has never bought more than eight ships in a single year. This year, it's buying only four. Next year's proposed budget calls for buying seven.

To make up, the Navy's shipbuilding plan promises to go on a shopping spree, consistently buying 12 or 13 ships a year.

But because of tight budgets and the rising costs of ship construction, the buying binge wouldn't begin until 2012. And to finance the binge, the Navy says, funding for ship construction would have to grow from about $12.4 billion next year to $17.9 billion in 2013.