US Rep. Rob Wittman to helm Navy plan for larger fleet
By HUGH LESSIG | Daily Press (Newport News, Va.) (Tribune News Service) | Published: February 19, 2017
NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (Tribune News Service) — Nearly 10 years ago, U.S. Rep. Rob Wittman launched his career in Congress by being the calm voice in a tough room.
That experience could pay dividends in the coming weeks as the affable Republican prepares for another tough job: helping to steer the biggest buildup of the Navy fleet since the Cold War through Congress.
Back on Nov. 10, 2007, Wittman and 10 other candidates walked into a crowded high school gymnasium in Caroline County, where Republicans had called a convention to nominate someone to run in a special election for the 1st Congressional District.
With the vote split 11 ways, the convention delegates fretted, debated and cheered, but they couldn't pick an immediate winner. It went to a third ballot, a fourth, then a fifth. The atmosphere was more like a good basketball game than a political debate.
After trailing much of the night, several candidates fell by the wayside and threw their support to Wittman. He emerged that night as the last politician standing.
At the time, he was a freshman state lawmaker little known outside his Northern Neck stomping grounds, but his voice cut through the noise as he presented himself as someone with "experience in getting the job done."
He's never looked back. After beating a Democrat to win the seat, Wittman has continued to represent the sprawling, solidly Republican 1st District, which goes from Hampton Roads up through the Middle Peninsula and Northern Neck and into areas of Fredericksburg and Prince William County.
Wittman now chairs the House Seapower and Projection Forces subcommittee, which is highly influential in shipbuilding, ship repair and larger issues affecting the Navy.
Near the top of his agenda is expansion of the Navy fleet.
Getting to 355
The fleet currently stands at some 275 ships with plans to reach 308. President Donald Trump campaigned on a 350-ship fleet. The Navy's own assessment calls for 355.
Wittman's panel must now sort through the messy details: the right mix of ships, the timetable for building them, and selling that plan to other members of Congress who want budget cuts, not more spending.
He's starting by doing his homework, much of it behind the scenes.
He chaired a subcommittee hearing Tuesday titled "Navy Requirements Underpinning 355 Ship Navy." It was classified and closed to the public. The next day he attended a classified intelligence briefing on trends in global terrorism.
He recently visited the Marinette Marine shipyard in Wisconsin, which makes a version of the littoral combat ship.
Wittman said he plans to visit every military shipyard in the U.S. If other subcommittee members want to tag along — Republican or Democrat — they're more than welcome.
"Having that on-the-ground knowledge has to be part of what we need to make good decisions," he said.
Besides field trips, he'll have plenty of reading material. The Navy's call for a 355-ship fleet is contained in a document called its Force Structure Assessment.
The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Analysis (CSBA) and the MITRE Corporation also have completed studies. Those two, along with the Navy assessment, were required by Congress.
Wittman has asked the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office to develop scenarios for reaching a 355-ship fleet over 15-, 20-, 25- and 30-year scenarios. It drives home the point that shipbuilding is a long-term business, and expanding the fleet won't happen overnight.
The president and CEO of Huntington Ingalls Industries, the nation's largest military shipbuilder, has acknowledged the same. Mike Petters said he's prepared to invest in his Newport News and Gulf Coast shipyards to help build a larger fleet. But the commitment must come from Congress and the administration.
"It requires pretty consistent messaging and some pretty consistent and persistent legislation over the next several years to actually achieve what you're reading about right now," he said Thursday during a conference call with analysts.
In other words, Wittman's work is just beginning.
His subcommittee will hold a number of hearings this year before Trump submits a defense budget. Wittman is optimistic that he and other like-minded lawmakers can sell higher defense spending to their colleagues in Congress who don't have a shipyard or military base in their home district.
"I think there is a realism that has set in with members about what we have to do with our nation's military," Wittman said.
He doesn't see a conflict between supporting more defense spending and being cost-conscious on the overall budget.
"I think you can be both a budget hawk and a defense hawk," he said. "The key is always how do you make the math work for that."
He'll be called to take a holistic view of the Navy, but he still must answer to voters in Virginia's 1st District. Defense spending drives the economy in Hampton Roads, and Wittman doesn't see that changing anytime soon. He said he's satisfied with the state of shipbuilding when it comes to Huntington Ingalls.
"I think that shipbuilding programs right now are at a very stable point," he said. "We can ramp up production by taking these existing 'hot' lines where we have created economies of scale. You can go from building two Virginia-class submarines per year to three, I think, without a hiccup. You can do the same with large surface combatants."
On aircraft carriers, he's open to the possibility of buying two at a time in order to save money.
Wittman said his committee work has not been affected by the constant headlines generated by the Trump administration, including the resignation of Michael Flynn, the national security adviser.
"I haven't noticed any impact there," he said. "We had folks come in on a classified briefing on terrorist activities around the world, how people move in and out of these countries. It was not a contentious partisan effort. There were some really thoughtful questions."