WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Navy should boost production of high-end warships to protect the U.S. shipbuilding industrial base and ensure it is prepared for new challenges as the U.S. military focuses more on the Asia Pacific region, a senior Republican senator said on Wednesday.
Senator Susan Collins, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, questioned whether building an average of 1-1/2 destroyers per year was enough to preserve the skilled workforce needed for the industry, and said it was clearly "insufficient to preserve vigorous competition" between the two shipyards that build destroyers.
Collins represents the state of Maine where General Dynamics Corp builds DDG-51 and DDG-1000 destroyers. Huntington Ingalls Industries, the other major U.S. Navy shipbuilder, is based in Newport News, Virginia.
U.S. shipbuilders and their suppliers are waiting for details about the Navy's budget plan for fiscal year 2013 and the following four years, which is due to be sent to Congress on February 6, but Collins said the new military strategy would likely preserve most spending on Navy assets given the Pentagon's shifting focus on Asia.
Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert on Tuesday told the conference that the Navy would complete a new force structure review this spring that is examining how many ships and other weapons are needed to implement the new strategy.
U.S. Navy officials have worked hard in recent years to increase the current number of 285 ships in the Navy's fleet to a targeted goal of 313, but Collins expressed concern that they were relying too much on planned purchases of 55 smaller littoral combat ships built by Lockheed Martin Corp and Australia's Austal to reach the targeted number.
"They need to take a look at it," Collins told Reuters after her speech. "Clearly the littoral combat ships can play a very important role in anti-piracy efforts and anti-smuggling and in shallow waters ... but there are questions about survivability and about whether they can handle multiple missions," she said.
"The numbers matter. But capability matters also," she said.
The littoral combat ship can operate close to shore.
Collins told a crowded ballroom at the event that the Navy should not become so fixated on absolute numbers of ships that it lost sight of its objective to have 94 large surface combatants that could perform multiple missions.
"Building a large number of ships is necessary, but building a large number of ships with limited combat capability at the expense of increasing the number of ships with higher capability could well be a pyrrhic victory," she said.
The latest shipbuilding plan showed the Navy would meet the minimum required number of surface combatants in only seven of the 30 years covered by the plan, and in some years, the number of cruisers and destroyers would be 25 percent below the requirement, Collins said.
It was imperative that the Navy mitigate or eliminate the gap, Collins said, citing rapid Chinese naval expansion.
The Navy estimates that by 2020 China will have 75 submarines, eight more than the United States, and 70 frigates and destroyers, compared to 120 in the U.S. fleet. China was also developing asymmetric capabilities such as a new sea-skimming missile, and its DF-21 anti-ship ballistic missile.
Collins said she was not arguing for an arms race with China, but said it would be "irresponsible" not to confront the Chinese naval and military expansion.
Bob Nugent, a retired naval officer and vice president of advisory services for AMI International, said the Navy could reduce its number of ships to around 250 fairly easily and without sacrificing too much capability.
He said he still viewed littoral combat ships as a good investment. They were smaller and less capable than U.S. destroyers, but were actually comparable in size to the ships being acquired by Asian countries.
(Reporting By Andrea Shalal-Esa; editing by Carol Bishopric)