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Congresswoman catches Navy ‘manipulating’ budget data

Rep. Elaine Luria (D-VA) addresses U.S. Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro during a House Armed Services Committee Hearing on May 11, 2022. (Screenshot).
May 12, 2022

On Tuesday, Congresswoman Elaine Luria (D-VA) claimed a recent U.S. Navy budget document “exaggerates” the number of ships the service has deployed, while another document “manipulates the true shrinkage the proposed budget would inflict on the service’s missile-launching capacity in the coming years.

During a House Armed Services Committee hearing in which lawmakers heard from Navy officials about its budget proposal for the 2023 fiscal year, Luria argued that the way the Navy has described its total number of “forward-deployed” ships gives a false impression they have more ships performing active operations than they actually do.

Luria, who is a retired Navy officer who commanded Landing Craft Unit 2, tweeted, “Mr. Secretary, your FY23 Navy Budget Book paints a rosy picture… that does not match reality,” with a video of her exchange with Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro during the hearing.

Luria noted a 2017 Navy readiness review that described the shrink in the Navy’s fleet size from about 600 ships in the late 1980s to about 300 in the present day. At the same time, the review described a “dramatic rise in the percentage of the total force deployed” from about 18 percent of the total force deployed at any given time in 1985 to about 35 percent in 2017.

“This has been a narrative that’s been recently portrayed a lot across discussions of the fleet, that we’re actually like running the fleet into the ground, we’re deploying ships more,” Luria said. “But then, you know, I forwarded to this year’s budget book, which is the real thing I want to dig into the meat of because I think it paints a rosier picture than actually exists.”

Luria presented a slide from the Navy’s 2023 fiscal year budget proposal, which described the “Operational Context” of the Navy’s fleet activities. The slide indicated that of its 298 ships in service, the Navy had about 128 ships “forward-deployed” as of March 17, 2022, indicating about 42 percent of the total ship force deployed. Luria said she found that figure was “curious” because it’s significantly higher than in the previous year and the projections for 2023.

Luria said she looked closer at the list of Navy ships deployed on March 17 and found that the 128 figure includes ships that are at their home ports or undergoing maintenance as well as Military Sealift Command (MSC) ships that undergo a different operational tempo than the typical warship deployment. Luria also expressed surprise at learning 13 of the Navy’s 14 ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) are included in the list of forward-deployed ships.

“I know it’s above the classification level of this hearing,” Luria continued, “but I can say with all certainty that 13 out of 14 SSBNs are not deployed or underway on any given day.”

Luria said that after her review of the Navy’s information on deployed ships, she determined “there were actually only 37 ships, which are rotational [continental United States]-based ships, deployed on this day in your budget report.” Luria then said the Navy slide “exaggerates” the number of ships underway.

In her exchange, Luria also brought up a pair of graphs provided by the Navy that show its proposed number of vertical launching system (VLS) cells through 2055. VLS cells are a system Navy surface ships and submarines use to house and launch missiles. The number of VLS cells the Navy has in active service is one indicator of the offensive capabilities of its warship fleet.

Luria said looking at the way the Navy presents its proposed number of VLS cells through 2055 “you’d think ‘wow, we’re pretty steady and then we start going up on this chart between now and 2055.”

“But,” Luria continued, “this is a zero to 12 thousand scale. So I mean, you can manipulate data to make things look flatter depending on the scale you use.”

Luria then presented her own chart, which just showed the number of VLS cells the Navy’s budget proposal would do away with between now and 2035 – a decrease of about 1,980 VLS cells over that time frame.

Luria reiterated that the Navy’s 2023 budget proposal “presented a rosier picture of the future of our VLS capacity as well as the number of fleets — ships in the fleet that are being employed.”

In response to Luria’s presentation, Del Toro said “one can interpret data a thousand different ways.” Del Toro said he had new numbers showing “81 total ships underway, for 27 percent of the fleet and that’s a very accurate accounting of how many ships we have today and I’d be happy to present you with this data.”

Luria challenged Del Toro to explain how the service described how many of its ships were actively operating at a given time, but her speaking time expired.