ST. MARYS, Ga. — Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus Jr. told 1,800 sailors and Marines at Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base on Friday that Americans are safe because the Navy is always in the right place all the time.
Mabus stressed that though concerns about money remained, the Georgia and Jacksonville bases are still in the Navy’s plans to upgrade. That includes replacing subs and building more ships — with Mayport being the hub for “small surface combat ships.” It’s all part of a strategy, he said, that will place the Navy at the forefront of U.S. defense strategy.
Mabus said all three Navy bases in the region — Mayport, Jacksonville Naval Air Station and Kings Bay — all have great value to the Navy.
All three bases should benefit as the Navy goes forward with its plan to build more ships to get to 300 modern ships and to remain there.
Asked about the reduction of the number of littoral combat ships — for which Mayport is to be the hub — from 52 to 32, Mabus said Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has not said he wants to reduce the number of small surface combat vessels.
The only thing the secretary of defense has said is the Defense Department won’t negotiate on contracts past 32 ships.
“We’re taking a look at the program,” he said of the ships, to determine whether the littoral ship meets the requirements of operations or whether the Navy needs to build another type of ship to replace its aging frigates.
“Among the options are to look at a clean sheet of paper,” he said of the design, but Mayport will fit in the plans.
“We’re going to have surface combatants. Mayport will continue to be the hub of small surface combat ships,” he said.
He said that Mayport will gain ships by the end of the decade, but the number of local jobs that results is dependent on the type of ship.
The maintenance on a nuclear carrier, for example, would be done by people flown into the area and not local workers, he said.
For Kings Bay, Mabus said the Navy is on schedule and on budget for replacing the Ohio Class submarines. Of the 14 subs armed with ballistic missiles, six are ported at Kings Bay and eight at Bangor, Washington. The Navy plans to replace those with 12 submarines that will be far more effective and lethal.
The Navy will start building the submarines in the early 2020s, and the first will go on patrol in the latter part of the decade, Mabus said.
The problem, however, is where the money will come from, Mabus said.
“We’re going to have to have a conversation on how we pay for it,” he said.
The Navy can’t bear the cost alone, because building the enormously expensive submarines would consume a third of its entire budget, which would be catastrophic to other Navy programs, he said.
He credited Congress for freeing up the money to allow the Navy to build, but he said that agreement could last as little as two more years.
“At the end of , if something isn’t done we go back to sequester levels, those dumb cuts,” he said.
The public has a right to expect some reduction in military spending as the U.S. ends two ground wars, but those reductions should be done intelligently, Mabus said.
With the end of those wars, the focus will be on the western Pacific and the Arabian Gulf and that means the Navy will be at the forefront of defense strategy, he said.
Mabus also touched on the growing concern about cuts to benefits.
“Nobody’s going to get cut,” but there is a need to slow down the growth in benefits, he said.
Should benefit payouts continue at the current rate, the Navy would have to make a choice. It would have the option of giving sailors the platforms, the weapons and the training they need to carry out their missions or “there’s going to be less of you,” Mabus said. “Neither are options.”
“Whether they know it or not, whether they appreciate it or not, America is in your debt,” Mabus said as he ended his visit during which he saw firsthand how the base carries out its mission of strategic nuclear deterrence.
After he spoke, Mabus took a few questions from the sailors and then stepped from the pavilion where he spoke to shake hands and pose for pictures with sailors.
His only prohibition was no on-the-job training. He asked them to make sure whoever handled their camera knew how to use it.
Mabus left Kings Bay for Austral USA Shipyard in Mobile, Ala., for Saturday’s christening of the USS Jackson, a new littoral combat ship, the Navy said.