WASHINGTON: The Navy’s push to become a more environmentally-friendly fighting force took a beating on Capitol Hill last week. But the tongue lashing delivered by House defense lawmakers has little chance of gaining traction on the Hill or inside the Pentagon, analysts say.
House Armed Services Seapower subcommittee member Randy Forbes took Navy Secretary Ray Mabus to task, slamming the service’s continued investment in alternative fuels, one of Mabus’ top priorities for the service.
“I understand that alternative fuels may help our guys in the field, but wouldn’t you agree that the thing they’d be more concerned about is having more ships, more planes, more prepositioned stocks,” Forbes said during the Friday hearing. “Shouldn’t we refocus our priorities and make those things our priorities instead of advancing a biofuels market?” Before Mabus could respond, the Virginia Republican took a clear shot at the secretary: “You’re not the secretary of the energy. You’re the secretary of the Navy.”
Forbes’ tirade was not completely unexpected given the fiscal pressures the Navy and the rest of the department are under, according to one congressional source. But Forbes did push the boundaries of opposition to the Navy program, and its leader. “I have never seen Mabus confronted like that before” on the service’s alternative energy initiatives, the Hill source said. Members of the Navy’s acquisition cadre “cannot not feel frustrated” when they look at the millions poured into biofuels and consider other areas those dollars could have gone toward. “You [could] buy a couple of ships” with those dollars, according to the source.
However, the timing of Forbes’ denunciation of the Navy’s green plans has more to do with politics than with procurement.
Political disagreements over how the Navy fuels its planes and ships “has a long pedigree” on the House panel, top defense consultant and member of Breaking Defense’s Board of Contributors Loren Thompson said. “The exchange between Rep. Forbes and Secretary Mabus isn’t really about energy. It’s about dueling political philosophies,” Thompson said. “Forbes could just as easily have challenged Mabus over putting women on submarines — another Mabus initiative — and scored similar points with the Republican faithful.” That said, one possible reason why Forbes took aim at the Navy’s biofuel plan is that President Obama put the effort into political play during the State of the Union speech in January.
During the speech, Obama laid out an ambitious alternative energy plan and put DoD at the forefront. “The administration seems implicitly to be making the argument that fostering alternative fuels broadly . . . has a higher priority than some of the more traditional DoD priorities,” Jan Van Tol, senior naval analyst at the Center for Budgetary and Strategic Assessments, said today. “That does not mean it is necessarily a wrong policy, but it is one that involves political judgments regarding the way energy policy should play in overall national [security] strategy.” That White House mandate, combined with the looming threat of additional budget cuts, will likely bump the biofuels issue off the political radar, the congressional source said.
The HIll source “would be surprised” if widespread opposition to the Navy plan gained any traction on either side of the Potomac. Whatever potential support GOP opponents may have is already starting to crack, according to the source. Rep Todd Akin, chairman of the seapower subpanel, did not broach the issue of biofuels during his questioning of Mabus and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert, who also testified before the full House committee last Friday. As the defense spending debate continues over the coming months, the issue will come up periodically as a political soapbox, but likely nothing more than that, the source predicted. “That’s going to be the pattern,” the source said.