US lawmakers are lining up to save the military's shipbuilding programs, which promise to be central to budget negotiations when House and Senate authorizers meet to mark up the fiscal 2006 defense authorization bill. With members of both parties concerned about the details of the Pentagon's plans to slash budgets for ships and other weapon systems, authorizers are expected to make major changes to the Bush administration's budget request to make room for favored programs.
Both the House and the Senate Armed Services committees ultimately might shift billions of dollars out of troubled programs to save projects they believe are critical to current and future military missions. Shipbuilding in particular would be hit hard, with the budget request for new ship procurement down $3.2 billion from last year's appropriated figures. The Pentagon has requested only four new ship buys next year, down from eight in 2005, and 19 during the 1980s weapons buildup, said Cynthia Brown, president of the American Shipbuilding Association. Several lawmakers have opposed the cuts, saying they not only will hinder the Navy's transformation plans but also hurt the domestic shipbuilding industrial base.
To save shipbuilding, some lawmakers and lobbyists want to scrap the Pentagon's plans to buy 13 aging cargo ships it leases. The buy could cost anywhere from $750 million to $1.5 billion and the lease on the ships is not up for several more years. Shipbuilding advocates say it makes little sense to invest in aging platforms while cutting funding for next-generation destroyers and other new ships.