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Senate Hearing Puts Milestone Navy Nominee to the Test with Familiar Questions

The admiral in line to be the first woman to head the U.S. Navy and the first to serve on the Joint Chiefs of Staff faced some familiar lines of questioning as a Senate confirmation hearing for Admiral Lisa M. Franchetti, focused on the service’s shipbuilding plans and maintenance headaches that have resulted in canceled deployments and reduced flying hours.

Adm. Franchetti, President Biden’s pick to be chief of naval operations, was pressed by Senate Armed Services Committee members Thursday over how the Navy would narrow the gap with China, which already boasts a bigger fleet and is rapidly expanding.

Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker, the panel’s ranking Republican, said Beijing’s rapid naval buildup and the shrinking number of U.S. Navy vessels has left the U.S. as unprepared as it was in 1941 when Japan launched its attack on Pearl Harbor.

“While China builds its maritime strength, American command of the sea is increasingly at risk,” Mr. Wicker said. “This crisis is nothing short of historic.”

He said China’s shipbuilding capacity is more than 230 times larger than in the U.S. More than a third of the Navy’s attack submarines are out of action because they are entering repair cycles, he added.

“We should be producing somewhere between 2.3 to 2.5 attack submarines a year to fulfill our own requirements,” Mr. Wicker said. “Instead, we are down to building 1.2 attack submarines a year. The path back toward two per year is based on hopes and wishes.”

Adm. Franchetti countered that, despite the numbers, the U.S. Navy remains qualitatively “the most formidable force in the world.”

“It’s not only about the number of ships we have, but it’s also about the capability of those ships,” she said. “It’s really a mix of that, along with ensuring that they have the right skills, the people with the right skills, the right manning, the right munitions, and all of the support they need to be able to do their job.”

Adm. Franchetti was selected for the historic position following the recent retirement of Adm. Mike Gilday. If confirmed by the Senate, she will be the first woman to sit on the Joint Chiefs of Staff but will serve in an acting capacity because of the continuing standoff between Senate Democrats and Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville over the Pentagon’s abortion policies that has blocked action on hundreds of promotions and reassignments for senior commanders across the military.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed expressed concern about the Navy’s proposal to retire a number of ships before the end of their service lives, including what he said were critically needed amphibious vessels and several Littoral Combat Ships.

“It seems that this plan would take us in the opposite direction of the Navy’s goal for a larger fleet,” the Rhode Island Democrat said. “Our naval forces continue to maintain a high operations tempo across all areas, and demand is overwhelming for attack submarines, cruisers, destroyers and strike fighters.”

Maine Sen. Angus King, a political independent who caucuses with the Democrats, told Adm. Franchetti he was concerned that while deterrence is the cornerstone of U.S. defense policy, it works only if the deterrent is credible.

“The credibility of our deterrent is waning, particularly in light of the massive capacity increase in China, and clearly the aggressive nature of Russia at this point,” Mr. King said. “Deterrence doesn’t work, and this weakness is an invitation to war.”

Despite the Navy’s ongoing efforts to improve productivity at maintenance bases, about 30% of U.S. warships are unavailable for combat at any given moment. Mr. King called that “absolutely unacceptable.”

“No business in the private sector would have 30% of their capital assets idle,” he said. “I think it’s time for a ‘hair on fire’ task force on this issue. We can improve productivity at those facilities, but looking at the numbers, it just doesn’t seem like that will be enough.”

Mr. Wicker said ship maintenance delays and cost overruns in the Navy are so routine that they are factored into the service’s planning tables. Some warships have spent years in repair and modernization shops. He said the Navy has not made progress toward the requirement for 355 warships that was signed into law six years ago.

“As China grows its fleet to historic levels, our naval forces continue to shrink and our readiness levels decline,” Sen. Wicker said. “The Navy has always been our first line of defense, keeping the peace by deterring war and protecting the national interest.”

Asked by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts Democrat, about the impact Mr. Tuberville’s hold on military confirmations was having, the admiral replied the backlog will not go away quickly.

“I think just at the three-star level it would take about three to four months to move all of the people around,” the admiral told Ms. Warren, before adding that “it will take years to recover from the promotions — if confirmed — for the promotion delays we would see [going] forward.”

But when asked by Sen. Ken Cramer, North Dakota Republican, if she believed GOP lawmakers “don’t care” about the welfare and hardships of U.S. military families, she replied, “As a member of the military, I believe that everyone in Congress supports everyone in our military.”

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