355-ship Navy not a must under Trump's secretary nominee

355-ship Navy not a must under Trump's secretary nominee
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President Trump's Navy secretary pick, Richard V. Spencer, doesn’t want lawmakers to get too hung up on the number 355.

A 355-vessel Navy requirement — pushed by both the president and defense hawks on the hill — could more likely translate to 300 ships paired with unmanned technology, the investment banker and former Marine Corps helicopter pilot told the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday.

“People have asked, ‘What do you think of the 355-ship Navy?’ And I’ve said, 'It is a great goal to have.' I can’t tell you what the construct of that would be sitting here today because I think unmanned both below the water, in the water and in the air is an area we’re just beginning to chip away at,” Spencer said during his confirmation hearing.

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Spencer later told reporters he would try for the president’s goal of 355 ships, calling it “a very nice number to look at and touch and feel,” but it would not be possible to reach the number quickly under the current spending caps mandated by the 2011 Budget Control Act.

“You can get to 355 ships, but what’s the timeline you’re giving me? If we want to do it in a — however you want to define reasonable [time] — no. We need to have resources obviously,” Spencer said following the hearing.

“I want to make sure that we don’t focus on the number so much that we lose sight of that it’s the capabilities that we want to focus on also,” he added.

Trump pledged on the campaign trail numerous times to increase the size of the Navy from its current fleet of 276 to more than 350 ships.

And Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.) last month unveiled the bipartisan Securing the Homeland by Increasing our Power on the Seas (SHIPS) Act that would set a 355-vessel fleet as U.S. policy.

It would be difficult to hit the desired size, however, under the Pentagon’s current budget constraints.

“Please know that we’re serious about this and we want to be your teammates there,” Wicker said of helping Spencer reach 355. 

Despite his break with the 355-ship mentality, Spencer’s confirmation seems all but certain. Lawmakers repeatedly praised his extensive business background and assured him they would move his nomination quickly to the full Senate.

Spencer currently heads Fall Creek Management LLC, a private Wyoming-based consulting firm, and has worked for several major Wall Street firms including Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, Bear Sterns and Paine Webber.

“It seems that you are doing well and I think I intend to join a unanimous committee in supporting your confirmation,” Wicker said.

Spencer’s successful navigation of the hearing is far cry from the June Senate hearing for deputy defense secretary nominee Pat Shanahan.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) threatened to block Shanahan’s nomination after he dodged questions about providing lethal defensive aid to Ukraine and Russia’s violations of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.

The Senate Armed Services Committee later approved Shanahan’s nomination, but he is still awaiting a floor vote.

The committee is expected to rapidly vote on whether to approve Spencer's nomination.

“We will be moving your nomination quickly to the floor of the Senate and hopefully we can get it done to get you to work,” McCain said as he closed the hearing.