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WASHINGTON — Senators on Thursday lamented Navy plans to decommission one aircraft carrier — assumed to be the USS John F. Kennedy — as a cost-cutting move in the president’s proposed 2006 defense budget.

John Warner, R-Va., chairman of the Senate Armed Services, called the proposal a “dramatic departure” from the 12-carrier standard military officials have upheld for years.

“That level of carriers has been the integral building block, not only for the Navy but for our force structure and planning for forward deployed operations,” he said.

During testimony before the committee Thursday Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Vernon Clark called the move a “risk” but said he believes the basic capability of the fleet will not be compromised.

But Clark said the move will likely shift Navy strategy to having only seven carrier fleets ready for deployment within 90 days. Currently, the service can deploy eight in that time frame.

Clark said if the USS Kennedy is retired, he still hopes to keep two carrier-capable bases active on the Atlantic Ocean. Currently that carrier is the only one based in Florida, while four others are based in Virginia.

“There is a danger in overcentralizing our operations,” he said.

“We need two carrier-capable ports on each coast.”

Also Thursday, senators criticized the Bush administration for not including costs of new equipment and more Army recruits in the 2006 budget proposal, a move they say could hurt the services’ readiness in the long run.

Not included in the $419 billion budget proposal are items such as $3 billion for pay and benefits for 30,000 new Army soldiers and about $200 million to build 13 unmanned Predator aircraft.

Officials expect those costs to be included later this year in a supplemental budget request, expected to reach nearly $80 billion.

Senators called that decision poor bookkeeping, and possibly even an underhanded way of limiting Congressional review on what the military is really spending.

“This removes from our oversight responsibilities and the scrutiny these programs deserve,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz, adding that many of the critical items shouldn’t be paid for through one-time spending.

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the ranking Democrat on the committee, said costs associated with modernizing the Army — a long-term goal of force officials — should not be included in the one-time payout because of their importance to the service’s future.

Also at the hearing, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John Jumper said he expects funding for the C-130J cargo planes to be reinstated as budget discussions progress.

The move was expected to save more than $870 million this year, but Jumper told senators defense officials did not account for the cost of penalties for breaking that construction contract.


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