Navy seeking pass on furloughs for shipbuilders

Losing the cadre of Navy shipbuilders to department-wide furloughs would have a severe impact on the service's ability to fight future wars, Navy acquisition chief Sean Stackley told lawmakers on Wednesday. 

The Navy is in the early stages of an ambitious shipbuilding program that will see the service field a 300-ship fleet within the next decade. 

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However, those plans could change for the worse if the Navy does not have enough engineers, welders and other positions critical to building that new fleet in place, due to the Defense Department furloughs. 

If the Navy cannot deliver on that 300-ship goal, due to a lack of manpower at the service's shipyards, it will not be able to carry out the Pentagon's maritime-heavy national security strategy, Stackley told members of the Senate Armed Services seapower subcommittee. 

His comments come as Pentagon officials are determining which people and positions it will exempt from a planned furlough of 750,000 civilian DOD employees. 

The furlough plan is part of the department's effort to pay for the Pentagon's $41 billion share of the across-the-board budget cuts under the White House's sequestration plan. 

Keeping workers at home and not paying them for the 14 days between now and Sept. 30 will save $2.5 billion, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in March. 

Defense officials have already exempted 50,000 foreign nationals working at various U.S. military installations worldwide from furloughs, a second Pentagon official told reporters. 

Pentagon leaders are combing the department's workforce to determine if some positions are simply too important to furlough. 

That said, The Navy's shipbuilding workforce "are in that mix," Stackley said Wednesday. 

The sea service won big in the Pentagon's budget plan, receiving $23.3 billion for shipbuilding, according to the department's $527 billion funding request.

But that cash infusion is simply not enough to guarantee the shipbuilding plan's long-term success, Stackley told subcommittee members. 

Navy leaders plan to spend an average of $15.1 billion per year over the five-year plan to build up to the 300-ship force. 

But without a nearly $2 billion annual increase to shipbuilding funds over the next several years, "we will not be able to hit the numbers in the [shipbuilding] plan," Stackley said Wednesday.