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Senate hearing gets testy over shipbuilding woes, climate change

The Navy’s top civilian leader came under fire Thursday from Republicans who argued the service isn’t doing enough to fix shipbuilding programs plagued by delays, with one senator even suggesting he should be fired over it.

Republicans at a Senate Armed Services Committee accused Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro of prioritizing climate change over Navy shipbuilding. Del Toro flatly rejected the criticism, arguing that he’s made progress to rein in over-budget and past-schedule ship programs.

The fireworks began with Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), who criticized Navy plans that keep the fleet under 300 warships through the end of the decade while China far outpaces the U.S. in shipbuilding. Sullivan argued Del Toro is more focused on climate change and asked the Navy leader if he should resign or be fired over ship delays.

“I feel compelled to ask, if a Marine platoon commander gets relieved because one of his Marines loses a rifle and a Navy captain gets relieved because his crew hits another ship while the captain is asleep, should the secretary of the Navy be relieved or resign for failing on his number one mission — shipbuilding — particularly when he is spending so much time on issues that are not even part of his [legal] responsibilities?” Sullivan asked.

Del Toro told Sullivan that he spends “75 percent of my time on shipbuilding,” yet called fighting the effects of climate change a major issue for Navy readiness.

“Actually, a good leader, what they do is to actually take assessment of the conditions that exist when one comes in. And you know well, senator, that the acquisition issues we’re dealing with go back decades,” Del Toro said. “What I’m trying to do, and have been doing from the day that I became secretary, was to be honest, transparent and deeply committed to turning things around. And that’s exactly what I’ve done.”

The session was unusually acrimonious for the traditionally bipartisan committee. After several rounds of tense questioning that saw Republicans interrupt Del Toro, Armed Services Chair Jack Reed (D-R.I.) made a plea for civility from committee rank-and-file.

“This committee has operated for many years based on a mutual respect for the witnesses and the senators,” Reed told senators. “The level of argumentation at this point, I think, is something we haven’t seen in a long time.”

Del Toro faced intense backlash from GOP senators over his focus on climate change, though concerns about shipbuilding delays — and whether the service’s budget for ships is enough — are bipartisan. A recent Navy review found delays of up to several years in the service’s top programs, including construction of aircraft carriers, submarines and a new frigate.

Del Toro argued that decades of Navy policy have led to this point and has highlighted the impacts of the pandemic and worker shortages as major recent hurdles. He also dinged defense contractors for using profits to repurchase stock, arguing some companies are putting shareholder interests over the needs of their customer, the Navy.

But Republicans aimed to put the onus on Del Toro, pointing to his emphasis on climate change. The Pentagon has noted that extreme weather and rising sea levels will harm military readiness and has sought to mitigate those effects. But some Republicans argue those efforts and other Biden-era policies — such as efforts to promote diversity and country extremism in the ranks — are distracting the military from its main mission of deterring China and Russia.

North Dakota Sen. Kevin Cramer, the top Republican on the Armed Services Seapower panel, pointed to China’s rapid naval buildup.

“I see a really big problem that’s not being addressed nearly as enthusiastically as climate change is with the Navy,” Cramer said.

Del Toro argued that climate policies are not “interfering with the things that we’re doing actually to deterring China.” He also pointed to Navy operations in the Middle East since the outbreak of war between Israel and Hamas in October, which included protecting commercial shipping in the Red Sea and defeating drone and missile attacks by Iran and its proxies.

“For the past six and a half months, our Navy and Marine Corps has proved to the world how capable we are. We are the very best,” he said. “But that also includes worrying in the future about the impact that climate has on our installation readiness.”

Sen. Eric Schmitt (R-Mo.) piled on, criticizing Del Toro and Pentagon leadership over diversity, equity and inclusion policies that he argued hurt recruiting. He also pressed Del Toro on Covid vaccine mandates, which have since been overturned but forced out several thousand personnel who refused the shot.

“You have recruitment challenges. You refused to admit that DEI’s a part of this. You’re firing qualified people who are well trained,” Schmitt told Del Toro. “And you sit here so smugly to act like none of that has any impact on the readiness of our Navy.”

Schmitt then asked Del Toro if he believed “that climate change is a bigger threat to the American people than a nuclear holocaust.”

“Of course not,” Del Toro shot back. Schmitt concluded that “Teddy Roosevelt in Admiral Nimitz would be rolling in their grave” over his equivocation on the issues.

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