WASHINGTON – Most of official Washington was still focused on the crisis in Syria last week when the Navy’s top civilian official delivered a little-noticed speech with potential implications for Maine’s shipbuilding industry.
Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus warned that the Navy is facing hard financial decisions in which “everything’s got to be on the table” unless Congress revisits the “sequestration” spending cuts and starts living up to its budgetary responsibilities.
There are “no sacred cows now” protected from budget cuts, Mabus cautioned.
“As secretary, I have done everything possible to protect shipbuilding. But if sequestration keeps going, I can’t do it forever,” Mabus told a group at the military’s National Defense University in Washington on Wednesday. “It is — and there is really no other way to put this — a dumb way to cut.”
Anyone who had hoped Congress would allow the word “sequestration” to retire will likely be disappointed. Unless Republicans and Democrats can agree on a better plan, the across-the-board budget cuts known as “the sequester” will continue every year for the next nine years to the tune of roughly $100 billion a year — half of which comes from Defense Department programs.
The new federal fiscal year begins Oct. 1 and Congress has yet to pass a single budget bill, much less come up with a compromise on sequestration. Instead, lawmakers are likely to pass a temporary spending bill — or continuing resolution — that will keep government going at current budget levels.
Mabus said that, under the current budget constraints, ships are already deploying less often and pilots are flying fewer missions. If sequestration continues, the Navy could be forced to eliminate three dozen scheduled maintenance periods and cancel multi-year contracts on new ships, he said.
Bath Iron Works, which is one of Maine’s largest private employers, is already waiting to see if Congress and the Navy can come up with about $300 million more to purchase a fifth Arleigh Burke-class DDG-51 destroyer. BIW already has contracts to build four more DDG-51s at a cost of $2.8 billion.
Mabus pointed to another ship made at BIW — the DDG-1000 — as an example of the type of hard decisions potentially coming down the pike. Mabus called the DDG-1000 “a great ship” but “too expensive, too limited” in its capabilities. As a result, the Navy canceled the program and went back to DDG-51s, which are built at BIW by General Dynamics and at a competing shipyard in Mississippi.
“So we have to continue to do things like that. Everything’s got to be on the table,” Mabus said. But giving the Navy the flexibility to make those hard choices is preferable, he said, to “being forced to make cuts in certain ways that just don’t make any sense.”
COHEN CRITICAL OF OBAMA ON SYRIA
Former U.S. Senator and Defense Secretary Bill Cohen, meanwhile, was critical of the Obama administration for what he saw as inconsistencies in its statements on Syria and for seeking congressional authorization for military strikes.
Speaking Saturday morning to Sen. Angus King on 560 WGAN Newsradio in Portland, Cohen said the administration has talked of “pinprick” strikes publicly but has also made private assurances to hawkish lawmakers who want the U.S. to help change the dynamics in Syria.
“And this kind of open discussion of inconsistency in terms of objectives has undermined, I think, any support that the president might have,” said Cohen, a Maine Republican who headed the Pentagon for four years during the Clinton administration.
Asked by King about President Obama’s decision to seek congressional authorization, Cohen said he thought that was a mistake. Instead, Cohen said Obama should have consulted with congressional leaders, made a robust case to intelligence committee members and then exercised his authority under the War Powers Act.
“I think once you go to Congress and say I need your support on this, you are subject to negotiating with 535 members of Congress, some wanting to tweak the language in one way or another way,” Cohen said
Cohen called “irresponsible” the frequent talk by some Republicans of initiating impeachment proceedings against Obama. But he suggested that those Republicans could be emboldened to pursue their plans — claiming a violation of constitutional powers — if Obama were to launch military strikes against Syria after Congress refused to give him authorization.
The diplomatic negotiations with Russia have essentially given Congress a pass — at least for now — on the Syria question. King, an independent serving his first term, said Saturday he was “very skeptical” of military strikes but suggested he might support a resolution that authorized military force if all diplomatic efforts failed.
NAVY SCHOOL IN WESTERN MAINE
And in more defense-related news, some people in western Maine were likely surprised this past week to hear their region is on the short list of possible locations for a missile defense facility.
The Pentagon is looking at five sites for an as-yet-unfunded launch facility for interceptors to protect the East Coast from intercontinental ballistic missiles. One of those sites is roughly 12,000 acres in Redington Township east of Rangeley where the U.S. Navy runs a survival training program.
In the past, more than 1,000 pilots, sailors and special operations personnel — think Navy SEALs — have trained at the Redington camp every year. The Navy provided a few additional details of the little-known school on Friday in response to questions from the Maine Sunday Telegram.
Based out of Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, the Navy’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (or SERE) School is a 12-day course featuring classroom instruction in Kittery and field training outside of Rangeley.
“The course is designed to give students the skills necessary to survive and evade capture and if captured, resist interrogation and escape,” wrote Darryl Orrell, a public affairs officer for the Navy’s Center for Security Forces in Virginia Beach, Va. “It is required for personnel designated high-risk of capture due to the nature of their military duties.”
The Navy occasionally opens up the facility to non-military personnel, allowing civilian search and rescue personnel to train there and — at least in the past — offering some school groups a chance to learn cold-weather survival skills.
Orrell said it is unknown how a missile defense facility could affect the training facility.
Kevin Miller can be contacted at (207) 317-6256 or at: