Navy responds to questions about new force

The new Navy Expeditionary Combat Command (NECC), after hitting some rough waters in Congress this year, is working to raise lawmakers’ awareness about its mission in an effort to gain more support in future defense bills.

The NECC unifies existing Navy functions, such as naval construction (better known as the Seabees), logistics, ordnance disposal, diving and salvage, as well as maritime protection.

But the program’s creation of a riverine force, capable of fighting on river waters, is stirring up controversy on the Hill.

Traditionally, the Marine Corps, the Navy’s land component, has provided the riverine forces, and several lawmakers are concerned that the Navy is trying to duplicate something the Marines specialize in.

“It made me question whether they are going to develop another Marine Corps,” Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.), chairman of the House Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee, told The Hill.

Being a capable land force with ability to fight up rivers in inland areas “was the only historical reason for the Marine Corps,” Hefley said. “The Marine Corps is not a separate branch” of the Navy — it’s part of it, he added. “Just bring more people into the Marine Corps.”

Hefley said the Armed Services Committee needs more explanation about the new command before it authorizes it.

“While I applaud the Navy’s efforts to realign its brown-water force structure and develop greater means for adapting to irregular warfare, my colleagues and I are working to validate the requirements of the new command and understand fully the riverine mission,” said Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.), chairman of the panel’s Projection Forces Subcommittee.

Rear Adm. Don Bullard, the NECC commander, is adamant in pointing out that his newly minted command is not duplicating Marine Corps capabilities but that it works in “close concert” with the Marines.

The NECC “is a high-end defensive force focused on anti-terrorism and force protection,” Bullard said in an interview. “The naval infantry is the Marine Corps, [but] they welcomed it.”

He said that the Navy and Marine Corps leadership had to educate sailors at the rank-and-file level about the role of the NECC and its riverine force.

One of the more prescient reasons for initiating the command was to oversee personnel with skills that could relieve the Army and Marine Corps for certain missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, Bullard said.

“We have spent a lot of time with congressional staff so that they understand that it is good for our sailors, that it is the Navy thinking how we can contribute to the joint force, how it uses its core capabilities in the maritime space and how it can focus on helping coalitions,” Bullard said.

The Navy specializes in areas that are desperately needed in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Tom Gordy, chief of staff to Rep. Thelma Drake (R-Va.), a member of the Armed Services Committee.

“If you look at Iraq, it has been more of a Marine Corps and Army war. The Navy has personnel to support much of what is going on in Iraq,” such as construction battalions and ordnance disposal for roadside bombs.

“The Navy had to reorganize itself in order to meet the needs in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Gordy, a supporter of the NECC.

Bullard said that the Navy has maintained those specialized forces for a long time but that since Sept. 11, those forces have been in higher and higher demand, although they have not had a command to guide them and take care of the training and personnel aspects.

“We looked at where we needed to be and [saw that] we needed to expand and bring new capabilities like the riverine force,” Bullard said.

But the House Armed Services Committee took a drastic approach toward the new command in the 2007 defense authorization bill. The authorizers stipulated that the Navy cannot spend any money from its operation and maintenance accounts for the NECC until the Navy meets 100 percent of its requirements for ship and air operations as well as maintenance.

The House also requires the secretary of the Navy to submit a report with the annual budget request certifying that the requirements are met.

“The committee is aware that the Department of Navy has funded ship and air operations and depot maintenance below the national requirements,” the House report said. That means that carrier-strike groups and expeditionary-strike groups will be unable to execute missions fully in their assigned area of responsibility, the report added.

“While the committee understands the Department of Navy’s desire to expand its role from the sea to the river and land, we have concerns that the traditional role and mission of the Navy is not being adequately funded,” the report said.

The NECC was established in January through an internal reallocation of funds, said John Scofield, spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee.

“Most of the money for NECC procurement, including the riverine units, was initially proposed in the FY ’06 [global war on terrorism] supplemental,” Scofield said.

However, the NECC did not fare well in the supplemental. Because of President Bush’s immigration initiative, deploying National Guard members to the Southwest border, the funding for the NECC was taken out as an offset.

“The House and Senate followed the amended [budget] request and deleted these funds,” Scofield said.

In the 2007 defense budget, there is funding for the NECC but it is scattered across several procurement and operations and maintenance accounts, he explained. Most of the capabilities united in the new command existed previously across the Navy and therefore have been funded regularly.

Scofield pointed out that because money was scrapped from the war supplemental the Navy’s 2007 request for the command can’t be executed and “a revised plan will be needed.”

“Before conference action is complete for FY ’07 we will need to revisit the overall funding for NECC and the riverine units,” he said.

The House has passed the 2007 defense appropriations bill, but the Senate has yet to do so.

The NECC is designed to encompass up to 40,000 sailors, according to Bullard. Members of the Reserve will make up 45 percent of the force, he said.

“We have an NECC unit of some type in every state of the country,” said Bullard. “When you look at Congress, [lawmakers] have constituents in their state.”