DSJ: Chairman Wittman, you’ve been for many years among the most forceful advocates in the Congress for increasing investment in shipbuilding. The Navy has stated its intention to grow its fleet from 274 to 355 ships. Are you satisfied with the Navy’s plans to grow the fleet?
Mr. Wittman: The Navy’s current 30-year Shipbuilding Plan only gets us to 342 ships. So I am concerned about what the Navy’s planning shows versus what the Congress passed into law, which legislates a 355 ship fleet.
DSJ: You’ve referenced the Congressional direction [Section 125 in the FY18 National Defense Authorization Act], to have 355 “battle force” ships, but do you think that there’s the political will in Congress – both the House and the Senate — to find the money to grow the fleet?
Mr. Wittman: Yes I do. I think that people understand very clearly today the need to get to 355 and what it’s going to take to do that in terms of modernizing existing ships and utilizing multi-year procurement funding, which helps us control costs. Although I can’t speak with as much authority about the Senate, I have had very good conversations with Senator [Roger] Wicker [Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Seapower] and I think that a majority of members in both houses of Congress understand the need.
DSJ: Regarding the utility of a specific platform, much has been made recently of the growing vulnerability of our nuclear aircraft carriers to advanced, long-range sea skimming threats from China and elsewhere. You’ve no doubt taken briefings on these threats and the US Navy’s capacity to counter them. Mr. Chairman, are our aircraft carriers more vulnerable than ever? Are they as relevant as ever?
Mr. Wittman: I don’t think that they’re more vulnerable than ever and the reason I say that is that our carriers operate as part of carrier strike groups. So they have a very formidable array of ships around them, from cruisers to destroyers, and they operate within an umbrella/network of protection. So, while acknowledging the threat and the need to extend both the protective umbrella and the strike of the carriers and the aircraft that we launch off them, they remain an extraordinarily effective and viable means by which to project United States power.
DSJ: How many carrier strike groups do we need?
Mr. Wittman: The law currently states that we need a total of eleven carriers and others have advocated that we need a total of twelve. As we retire the [U.S.S.] Nimitz we are, as you know, going back down to ten for a good while before we can get the next aircraft carrier on line. So, I think that eleven carriers is adequate, but in order to sustain eleven carriers in the force, I think we need to speed the production of carriers from a 6-year process to a 3.5 year cycle and, as you know, we have this year begun to increase efficiencies buy building two carriers at a time.
DSJ: How are we progressing on how to fund the Columbia class submarine program? Should this be done under Navy shipbuilding accounts or do we need a separate Strategic Fund to buy these assets?
Mr. Wittman: I believe strongly that we need a separate National Sea based Deterrence fund to ensure that these big ticket strategic force assets – these subs will be $6 billion each – will get built. When we introduced the legislation in the House creating the fund, it passed overwhelmingly, receiving over 330 votes, so I think that there’s going to be continued support for this approach.
DSJ: You’ve mentioned that the new B-21 bomber is something that we need to pursue more aggressively. Why?
Mr. Wittman: We have an aging bomber fleet right now. We need these new aircraft. The B-2 is a very capable aircraft but it is very expensive to operate. The B-1 isn’t quite as applicable today as it has been in the past. The B-21 bomber is therefore a critical program. It is on track as far as schedule and on track on cost. We need to focus on keeping it on track but also on determining the most efficient B-21 production rate consistent with modernizing our bomber force.
DSJ: I’ve heard you say that the U.S. should be spending not less than four percent of national gross domestic product (GDP) on defense. That’s about $740 billion. Is that doable? Can we spend four percent of GDP on defense and how do we get there?
Mr. Wittman: This year, the total funding allocation for defense-related spending is $716 billion, so when you talk about $740 billion, you’re not that far away [from the 4% goal]. Obviously the task to get there is an arduous one and we also have to keep foremost in mind the deficit and the debt. The path will be challenging but the good news is that in the last two years we’ve taken significant steps to properly fund defense. And it’s not just additional dollars, it’s about how we more efficiently use those dollars.
DSJ: What do you think of the pace of our defense systems development and fielding?
Mr. Wittman: We must shorten the system acquisition process so that we go from concept to design to acquisition much more quickly. We cannot take fifteen years to field a system like we have in the past. I know that these are complex systems and you have to go through a lot, but our adversaries field systems in a third of that time. We need to move more quickly to fielding, and we need to field systems that are modular and readily upgradeable as new technology emerges.
DSJ: You’ve been Chairman as Seapower Subcommittee for about a year and a half and I’d like to ask about the successes that you have experienced over that time.
Mr. Wittman: It’s been a lot of effort and I’ve very much enjoyed visiting our shipyards and all the different elements of the Navy to understand the challenges that are faced with ships stateside and ships stationed abroad. What’s amazing to me is the capability of our sailors and what they do with those platforms and the skill with which they do it. That to me has been phenomenal.
I would say that I’m most proud of us being able to get that 355 ship number into law last year. I am very proud of our success that we’ve had in increasing funding to build the ships the last few years. The challenge going forward is to sustain that.
DSJ: What about the biggest challenges or disappointments?
The biggest challenge is making sure we properly fund what is needed. This year one of our disappointments was not getting the funding we wanted for two additional Virginia Class attack submarines. We know that these submarines are the most requested asset in the entire U.S. military inventory by our combatant commanders. I think that these assets are going to be critical for us to counter our adversaries, who are building submarines at a record pace.
DSJ: Your last HASC Subcommittee Chairmanship was of the Readiness subcommittee. Has U.S. military readiness increased during the Trump Administration?
Mr. Wittman: I would say that readiness has increased, but it still has a ways to go. When we’ve had past budget reductions, the first thing that suffered was the readiness accounts. The good news is we put money back into those readiness accounts, so training has been coming back. So I would say that we are on the right path, but that overall readiness is not yet where we need it to be.
DSJ: Thank you for your time and for your perspectives.