Shipbuilding budget falls short of Navy’s needs, says top admiral

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That number could theoretically go higher, depending on what American commanders required at a given time, he told subcommittee Chairman Randy Forbes (R-Va.) in Thursday's hearing.

"Some [requirements] are more valid than others," Burke, who is the deputy chief of naval operations for warfare systems, said explaining how the Navy and the Pentagon prioritize urgent requests from the field.

But when Forbes pressed Burke to come up with the number of warships needed to support the most pressing demands of field commanders, Burke said "over 500 ships" would fit the bill.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told House and Senate defense legislators in February that the Navy would max out its fleet at 285 ships in 2017. By 2020, that number would climb slightly to 300, he said.

That number would come short of the service's 313-ship goal outlined in previous plans and fall far below the 500-ship fleet Burke said the Pentagon needs.

Burke told subpanel members that service leaders were instituting short-term fixes to balance the global demands on the fleet with the budget demands in Washington.

The Navy is looking to station warships overseas longer, to cut down on the number of needed rotations to certain areas of the world. It is also planning to ramp up repair and maintenance work, to make sure the ships the Navy has now will last.

But those efforts, particularly in maintenance and repairs, cost a lot of money that the service does not have under the current fiscal 2013 budget, Burke said.

"I'm concerned we [can] not properly fund [ship] maintenance in the future," Burke told House lawmakers.

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert is spearheading an effort to re-evaluate the Navy's shipbuilding strategy.

That work, which is still under way inside the Pentagon, could increase the number of vessels the Navy will build. That number could go north of 300 once the plan is finalized.

But the fiscal realities facing the Navy and the rest of DOD will all but guarantee the fleet will likely never hit 500 ships.