WASHINGTON – The Pentagon and U.S. Navy would do well to worry about the implications of its 30-year shipbuilding plan now, instead of thinking of its fleet strategy as a concern decades down the road.

That is especially true for the Navy’s fleets of attack submarines, cruisers and destroyers, which face considerable shortfalls in coming years unless the service tweaks its plan or changes the scope of the vessels’ missions.

Consider the recent remarks of Ronald O’Rourke, generally recognized as the U.S. government’s leading naval affairs specialist at the Congressional Research Service (CRS) before the House Armed Services Committee subcommittee on oversight and investigations.

O’Rourke warns of those shortfalls projected to occur in the 2020s and beyond — even if the Navy’s 30-year shipbuilding plan is fully implemented.

“These projected shortfalls are significant,” he says. “If they occur, they could make it difficult or impossible for the Navy to fully perform its projected missions.”

O’Rourke notes that “these projected shortfalls have been on the books since last year, but they haven’t received much attention in public discussions of the Navy shipbuilding plan. This might be because they look like they are far in the future. But in terms of issues they might pose for policymakers, that’s not necessarily the case.”

Substantially redressing these shortfalls, he says, could involve putting additional destroyers and attack boats into the shipbuilding plan or extending the service lives of existing cruisers, destroyers and attack boats.

The Navy could even be forced to add at least some, if not most or all, of these additional destroyers and attack boats to the shipbuilding plan, O’Rourke says, before the service starts to replace its ballistic-missile submarines in the 2020s.

“If so,” he says, “then the question of whether to add these ships to the plan could become a near-term issue for policymakers. The alternative of extending the lives of existing cruisers, destroyers and attack boats by 10 or 15 years beyond their currently planned lives poses a serious question of feasibility and cost-effectiveness, especially for the attack boats. If this option were feasible, implementing it could require increasing, perhaps starting right away, funding levels for the maintenance of these ships.”

This additional maintenance funding would be on top of the money the Navy has already programmed to help these ships reach the end of their currently planned lives, he says, and because this additional funding might need to start soon, it could again pose a near-term issue for policymakers.

“Implementing either of these options within the Navy’s currently planned top line would likely compel the Navy to reduce other critical programs below desired levels,” O’Rourke says. “So the question of what to do about these two projected shortfalls is not only a potentially near-term issue for policymakers, but one that could also raise fundamental [issues] for policymakers about the value of naval forces in defending the nation’s interests and the priority that naval forces should receive in allocation of overall Defense Department funds.”

This is obviously a problem that needs to be addressed now.