House and Senate panels prepare to grill top Navy, Marine Corps leaders

Senior Navy and Marine Corps officials will face questions from two congressional committees this week about their 2012 spending plans, including the controversial decision to end the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV).

For the first two months of 2011, three issues primarily have dominated defense circles: the congressional budget stalemate; the Air Force’s tanker decision; and the Pentagon’s 2012 budget plan. This week, naval issues will be under the spotlight.

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First, on Tuesday, the Senate Armed Services Committee will hear from Navy Secretary Raymond Mabus, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead and Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos.

It is a safe bet panel members will grill Amos about the decision to ax the EFV program.

Several Armed Services Committee members, including Sen. James Webb (D-Va.), have for some time supported the amphibious craft program.

Last fall, Webb said if testing pans out, the vehicle could “fill a critical gap in providing the Marine Corps with an assured access capability from the sea during opposed and lower-risk operations.”

Prime contractor General Dynamics would do EFV work in Virginia, if lawmakers keep the program alive.

Pentagon and Marine Corps officials say its expected $13 billion price tag is too steep. But they say a new craft to take Marines from ships to the shore is needed.

House Appropriations Defense subcommittee Chairman C.W. Bill Young (R-Fla.) last week said the House-passed full 2011 continuing resolution, known as H.R. 1, includes "a way to eliminate EFV termination costs and get something out" of that program.

All eyes will be on Young for more details the next day when the three naval officials appear before his panel.

DoD leaders already have cleared the Corps to start a new -- cheaper -- vehicle based around technology that will need less-costly development work.

Because panel members like Webb and Sen. Susan Collins hail from states where Navy warships are built, there is little doubt Mabus and Roughead will be asked about plans for new vessels, as well as whether the Navy is on track to meet its own goal of a 313-ship fleet.

Some Pentagon officials and lawmakers have said the Navy is on track for far fewer, largely because of the ever-increasing costs of designing and building warships. But with jobs at risk, lawmakers surely will press for details about whether the sea service can find a way to squeeze more ships into its plans.

Additionally, Navy leaders are mulling how to pay for new aircraft carriers, destroyers and other ships while also pouring tens of billions into a new fleet of nuclear-powered submarines.

Pentagon acquisition executive Ashton Carter recently revealed the sea service has trimmed the projected cost of each submarine to $6 billion. He also said the Navy is working toward an ultimate price target of $4.9 billion per sub. Navy officials are planning to buy a dozen models.