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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Construction has begun on the Navy's next aircraft carrier. It is to be called the USS Gerald R. Ford. And when it's finished, the Navy will have - how many aircraft carriers, Tom Wilkerson?

Major General TOM WILKERSON (Retired, U.S. Marine; CEO, U.S. Naval Institute): I believe they're at 11 right now, and it would seem that their proposal going forward is to remain with 11.

INSKEEP: That's retired U.S. Marine General Tom Wilkerson, by the way. He has joined us to talk about the Navy and its budget. And we should mention that that new aircraft carrier matters in part because it's going to cost - how much?

Maj. Gen. WILKERSON: I'm not sure, but I heard figures along the order of $20 billion.

INSKEEP: Twenty billion dollars. Mr. Wilkerson heads a think tank called the U.S. Naval Institute. And can you just give me an idea - when we talk about $20 billion aircraft carriers, how do the Navy's ambitions match up with the money that's available right now?

Maj. Gen. WILKERSON: I think the problem that they're facing is not unexpected and it's happened several times in history. They've got more things to do than they have money to help them do it.

INSKEEP: So the Navy says it needs ever more resources, which leads to a question: is that a hard time for the Navy because the Army and the Marine have a more urgent claim on the budget?

Maj. Gen. WILKERSON: I think it's a broader question. Two of the four services, the Air Force and the Navy, are not directly and regularly participating in the ground combat that you see in Afghanistan and in Iraq. And one of the things the Navy has done in adapting to that, just so you know, it is more than 50 percent, almost 13,000 sailors, who are in the war zone right now are on the ground, not on ships.

INSKEEP: We heard just earlier this week on MORNING EDITION, more sailors and airmen from the Air Force being trained to go over there. That's something that each branch of service finds to be rather important for its own interests as well as necessary for the national interest?

Maj. Gen. WILKERSON: I think it's a statement on their part that they don't carry a union card and if there's a war, they're going to do their part, and if their part means they have to move away from the lane in which they have traditionally worked, they're up to the task. In other words, sailors march to the sound of guns too.

INSKEEP: Now, is this creating a debate within the Pentagon because the Air Force and the Navy are the branches of service that have the truly, truly expensive equipment?

Maj. Gen. WILKERSON: Yes.

INSKEEP: But the Army and Marines are the ones that are sacrificing the most and seem to have the greatest need?

Maj. Gen. WILKERSON: And that's true right now and it would seem for the foreseeable future the Navy and Air Force have to make the case of what it is that they need to move forward and make their contributions to national defense - and that's a tough sell.

When I've spoken with senior Naval officers, one of the things I say is you need to take credit for part of the problem you're facing today, part of the challenge. And the credit is in the course of the decades, the United States Navy has systematically built itself into the most powerful Naval force in the world. And historically, as you go back and look at other times when there were challenges at sea, we would lose convoys during World War II with significant loss of life and lost of goods; in other words, the Navy has beaten the competition.

INSKEEP: Well, given that there is no competitor for ships like those aircraft carriers, are there - are there people inside the Pentagon who are asking if maybe you can build 10 smaller ships for a billion dollars each that are more flexible and can do a lot of things for you and save you money overall?

Maj. Gen. WILKERSON: What you're asking about now is a key question, and there's a lot of cultural bias in it, as you must imagine, because aircraft carriers have served the nation and the Navy as essentially the crown jewel. When presidents are concerned about national crises, one of the first questions they've always asked is where are the aircraft carriers.

INSKEEP: When Vice President Cheney wanted to make a statement in the Persian Gulf recently, he stood on an aircraft carrier.

Maj. Gen. WILKERSON: And of course when the president wanted to announce what some might say was prematurely the end of war operations in Iraq, he too stood on an aircraft carrier. The point is, they very much represent the symbol of American military might. That said, there's a dialog going on in the Pentagon and in the Navy, as they attempt to put together a new maritime strategy that explains just what kind of Navy we might need to go into the foreseeable future.

The Navy knows that there's a finite amount of dollars that are going to be available and the challenge for them is they also historically know about how much of the defense budget the Navy department will receive as a percentage.

INSKEEP: What's that percentage for the Navy normally?

Maj. Gen. WILKERSON: I'm not sure. But I think it's usually been about one third, one third, one third, and it's moved to a few percentage points back and forth. But if the Navy were to gain dollars, the chances are that it would only come at the expense of one of the other services. In other words, it's a zero-sum game. The services end up all too often competing with one another, not competing absolutely for dollars that they need.

INSKEEP: Retired Marine General Tom Wilkerson heads the U.S. Naval Institute. Thanks for taking the time.

Maj. Gen. WILKERSON: My pleasure, Steve.

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