Key U.S. Lawmaker: Special Funding for Nuclear Vessel Won’t Happen This Year

The Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarine USS West Virginia returns in February to Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, Ga., following routine operations. A key U.S. lawmaker says the nuclear-armed submarines' replacements may get a special funding stream, but not anytime soon.
National Journal
Elaine M. Grossman
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Elaine M. Grossman
April 29, 2014, 10:26 a.m.

A key U.S. House pan­el lead­er says Con­gress won’t cre­ate a spe­cial fund­ing stream for nuc­le­ar-armed sub­mar­ines this year, but he thinks the idea of bank­rolling the ves­sels out­side of the Navy’s strained ship­build­ing budget is al­most cer­tain in the long term.

Rep­res­ent­at­ive Randy For­bes (R-Va.) told re­port­ers on Tues­day morn­ing that re­pla­cing today’s Ohio-class bal­list­ic-mis­sile ves­sels “is a na­tion­al stra­tegic con­cern” that can­not be al­lowed to fall vic­tim to an already un­der­fun­ded nav­al ship-pro­cure­ment plan in com­ing dec­ades.

That plan, by his es­tim­ates, is $4 bil­lion to $6 bil­lion short an­nu­ally.

Some Navy lead­ers and mem­bers of Con­gress have ad­voc­ated that as a “na­tion­al stra­tegic as­set,” the pur­chase of 12 new “SSBN(X)” sub­mar­ines armed ini­tially with Tri­dent D-5 nuc­le­ar-tipped mis­siles should have its own ded­ic­ated fund­ing source out­side of the ser­vice’s nor­mal budget.

The idea would be to help en­sure that this leg of the U.S. nuc­le­ar tri­ad con­tin­ues to be re­sourced, and is not cut to help fund oth­er Navy pri­or­it­ies in its plan to field 300-plus com­bat ves­sels.

Navy lead­ers have test­i­fied that the Ohio-class re­place­ment pro­gram is their top ship-con­struc­tion pri­or­ity, and they would cut pur­chases of oth­er ves­sels, if need be, to fund the nuc­le­ar-armed sub­mers­ibles. If the Ohio-class re­place­ment sub­mar­ine goes for­ward as planned un­der a single ship­build­ing budget, Navy brass have said they might be able to sus­tain a fleet of just 250 ves­sels.

However, For­bes sees a grow­ing need for U.S. seapower in the Asia-Pa­cific re­gion and around the globe. He said he can’t ima­gine how the Navy could real­ist­ic­ally fund the nuc­le­ar-equipped ves­sels — a pro­gram es­tim­ated at more than $90 bil­lion — and still have funds to buy enough of oth­er classes of re­quired war­ships.

“If you don’t do that [sep­ar­ate-fund­ing scheme], ba­sic­ally we’re go­ing to be tak­ing our en­tire ship­build­ing budget to do that [bal­list­ic-mis­sile sub­mar­ine], and that would be very, very dan­ger­ous for the coun­try,” said For­bes, who chairs the House Armed Ser­vices Seapower and Pro­jec­tion Forces Sub­com­mit­tee.

Speak­ing at a De­fense Writers Group break­fast, he said the pro­spects that Con­gress as a whole would sup­port a spe­cial fund­ing scheme for the “boomer” sub­mar­ines some­time in the fu­ture are “good be­cause I think we’re not go­ing to have a choice.”

For­bes blamed both Re­pub­lic­an and Demo­crat­ic law­makers, as they re­view and al­ter fed­er­al budgets, for hav­ing typ­ic­ally “reached up and grabbed” de­sired fund­ing num­bers and said “make this fit.” But “on na­tion­al de­fense you can’t do it,” he said.

The Navy es­tim­ates it will need an av­er­age of $16.8 bil­lion an­nu­ally — meas­ured in fisc­al 2013 dol­lars — to un­der­write its 30-year ship­build­ing plan, which is more than $2 bil­lion a year over his­tor­ic av­er­ages, ac­cord­ing to a re­cent Con­gres­sion­al Re­search Ser­vice re­port. The Con­gres­sion­al Budget Of­fice says the Navy plan would ac­tu­ally re­quire $19.3 bil­lion on av­er­age each year, or $2.5 bil­lion more than the ser­vice’s es­tim­ates.

“I don’t think Con­gress is go­ing to want ship­build­ing to stop com­pletely,” For­bes said. “And yet, we’re not go­ing to let the most power­ful ves­sels we have in the world for na­tion­al de­fense not be [built].”

However, he said U.S. le­gis­lat­ors would likely “put it off un­til the last mo­ment,” as they tend to do on many mat­ters of pub­lic policy.

“We’re not there now,” said the law­maker, who has rep­res­en­ted Vir­gin­ia’s 4th Dis­trict since 2001. “I wish I could give you a timetable. I can’t. But I do be­lieve that’s the right thing to do, and we’re go­ing to con­tin­ue to push” the is­sue.

The Navy has re­ques­ted $1.2 bil­lion in SSBN(X) re­search and de­vel­op­ment funds for fisc­al 2015, and plans to be­gin build­ing the first such ves­sel in 2021. It is to be ready for field­ing a dec­ade later.

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