The Ohio Replacement Program (ORP) won a big congressional victory Wednesday night, having its funding mechanism saved for the second time this spring despite efforts to cancel the account.
The National Sea Based Deterrence Fund acts like a piggy bank for the ballistic missile submarine replacement program, with both Congress and the defense secretary being able to put money into the account – Congress would theoretically move ORP-related spending items from the shipbuilding and research and development accounts into the NSBDF, and the defense secretary could move extra money in via reprogramming requests.
Though the House and Senate armed services committees used their bills to strengthen the fund and get ahead of the massive cost of the sub program – more than $102 billion, the Congressional Budget Office estimates – the House Appropriations Committee chose to nix the fund altogether.
House Appropriations defense subcommittee chairman Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) explained his stance during a floor debate Wednesday night.
“We recognize the submarine will be expensive; however, the National Sea Based Deterrence Fund will not make the submarine any less expensive … and will not increase resources to the Department of Defense,” he said.
“This Congress has an important responsibility to provide resources to all of our military services and intelligence community. Under the structure of this special fund, the secretary of defense has the authority to divert dollars into this new fund from the Army, Marines, Air Force, special forces, missile defense, ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) and other types of essential programs. This is the wrong approach. It removes, furthermore, congressional oversight from the secretary of defense.”
Frelinghuysen added that “if the president determines the Ohio-class replacement is a must-fund program, then the Navy should buy it, just as it has every submarine in the inventory that our committee has supported. Establishing a special fund to pay for the submarine is an attempt to have other military service pay for what is a Navy responsibility.”
The Navy – and many others in Congress and in the Pentagon – disagree with that last point. Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.), the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) seapower and projection forces subcommittee, said during the debate that the New START nuclear arms treaty outlines a plan in which sub-launched ballistic missiles account for 70 percent of the U.S. strategic deterrent, with the Air Force’s silo- and bomber-based missiles accounting for only 30 percent combined. Courtney said “it’s not just the Navy’s, it’s the country’s” responsibility to pay for ORP, and Congress ought to “do something sensible” to get an early start paying that bill.
The issue was already debated in mid-May, when the House debated HASC’s National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2016. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) offered an amendment that would eliminate the fund, and it was defeated 375-43. After about 15 minutes of debate on Wednesday night, the House eventually voted on the amendment to save the NSBDF and it passed overwhelmingly again, 321-111.
“It makes sense now to set aside funding for the Ohio-class submarine replacement program. This makes sure that down the road we are not forced to choose between building a replacement ballistic missile submarine or a destroyer or an aircraft carrier,” Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.), who chairs the HASC readiness subcommittee, said during the debate.
“The Navy already faces challenges in building enough warships to meet the global threats our nation faces. Funding the National Sea Based Deterrence Fund is the best solution to maintaining the national strategic deterrence without hollowing out the Navy’s shipbuilding budget.”
Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.), the top Democrat on the HASC emerging threats and capabilities subcommittee, added that the ballistic missile submarine “last came due in the 1980s in the Reagan defense buildup” and that not dealing with it properly now would allow ORP to “consume half the projected shipbuilding funding for a decade, causing crippling shortages that would echo in our fleet for decades thereafter.”
Fundamentally, though, the appropriators believe ORP should be fully funded but only through their annual process – despite the existence of several other program-specific accounts, such as the National Defense Sealift Fund.
House Appropriations defense subcommittee ranking member Rep. Pete Visclosky (D-Ind.) said creating a new fund “expands and transfers authority to the secretary of defense, and the last time I looked we have a constitutional responsibility to make decisions ourselves.”
He added, “if the Ohio Class Replacement and a 300-ship Navy are priorities of this nation and consistent with our national defense strategy, then we ought to pay for both in a transparent manner by increasing the resources in the shipbuilding account and not resort to setting up independent funds.”
The matter is not settled just yet – the Senate still needs to pass its defense authorization bill and defense appropriations bill and then go to conference with the House to work out the differences. The fund would be safe this year if the final versions of both bills allow for it.