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House’s 2018 Defense Bill Would Increase DDG, SSN Production Rates; Buy Carriers Every 3 Years

Virginia-class attack submarine Minnesota (SSN-783) under construction in 2012. US Navy Photo

CAPITOL HILL – The House Armed Services Committee’s defense bill for 2018 would allow the Navy to buy 15 Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers and 13 Virginia-class attack submarines over the next five years instead of the 10 each the Navy wanted, would urge the Navy to buy aircraft carriers every three years, and would force the destroyer shipbuilders to make quicker progress upgrading to the Flight III ship design that boasts a more impressive radar, HASC aides told reporters today.

The Fiscal Year 2018 National Defense Authorization Act will be debated in the HASC next week, but the subcommittee-specific sections were released today and explained to reporters by committee staff members.

This year’s bill would take several steps to pave the way to a larger fleet, staffers explained, to include making it national policy to get to a 355-ship Navy as soon as possible. It would also require the Navy to maintain a 12-aircraft carrier fleet beginning in 2023, when the future John F. Kennedy (CVN-79) is set to deliver, and it would lay the groundwork for the Navy to buy more ships and submarines through its two upcoming multiyear procurement contracts.

In an effort to increase attack submarine production, ahead of an upcoming dip in the size of the SSN fleet, the bill would have the Navy buy 13 submarines in the next five years – beyond the two a year the Navy wanted to buy, it would add a third submarine in 2020, 2022 and 2023. The first two Columbia-class ballistic-missile submarines (SSBN-826) will be bought in 2021 and 2024, and the HASC aides said the committee believes the industrial base has the capacity to build a third SSN in years the Navy is not procuring a SSBN.

That massive increase in work, though, does not take into account the added manpower and shipyard facilities it would take to build the Virginia Payload Module, an extra segment inserted into the body of the sub that adds 28 missile tubes. VPM was meant to be the heart of the Block V design, but the Navy has hesitated to say it could put VPM on all the boats in the Block V multiyear procurement contract.

The NDAA language does not weigh in on when the VPM would be introduced or how many a year the multiyear contract should include, but the HASC staffer told USNI News that, “if in fact we are going to add additional attack submarines in 2020 and 2022 and 2023, we think there may be merit with regards to delaying VPM introduction” due to industrial base capacity.

The other multiyear procurement contract in the shipbuilding budget is for destroyers, for which the Navy currently plans to buy two a year but the NDAA would have them buy three a year.

Ingalls Shipbuilding launched the Arleigh Burke-class Aegis guided missile destroyer John Finn (DDG 113) on March 28, 2015. Huntington Ingalls Industries photo.

Upgrading from the Flight IIA configuration to the Flight III design with a AN/SPY-6(v) Air and Missile Defense Radar has tripped up the destroyer program in FY 2016 and 2017, though, and the NDAA seeks to force the builders’ hands a bit. The committee aide said the Navy has already purchased three AMDRs for three destroyers – one from FY 2016 and two from 2017. The bill would mandate that at least two of those three ships be built to the Flight III design with AMDR. Ingalls Shipbuilding has said it is ready to begin Flight III construction, while General Dynamics Bath Iron Works has not reached that same agreement with the Navy. Acting Navy acquisition chief Allison Stiller told HASC in a hearing last month that “we have a handshake agreement with Huntington Ingalls to introduce the Flight III capability on their FY ’17 ship,” but she told USNI News after the hearing that “we’re also in negotiations with BIW to try and get a Flight III configuration on their FY 2017 ship, but we haven’t gotten to that point yet.” The NDAA would force BIW to reach this agreement.

In a series of efforts to boost the aircraft carrier fleet, the bill would require the Navy to maintain a dozen carriers, would note a “sense of Congress” that building carriers every three years is preferable, and allow the Navy to follow its original plans to put first-in-class Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) out for training and deployments and wait until the second ship in the class to conduct shock trials.

The Navy had intended on sending Ford on its maiden deployment as soon as it completed post-delivery testing and maintenance, but then-Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Frank Kendall directed the Navy in 2015 to conduct shock trials on Ford instead of Kennedy. Navy officials told USNI News that, due to how the Navy plans its deployment cycles, the six-month shock trials and subsequent ship repair work could actually delay Ford’s maiden deployment by as much as two years. The Navy would still have to work out the shock trial timing with Pentagon leadership, but this legislative language would remove any potential legislative issues and allow shock trials on Kennedy if the Pentagon agrees to it.

Newport News Shipbuilding placed a 900-ton superlift into dry dock, continuing construction of the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy (CVN 79). Nearly 90 lifts have been placed in the dock and joined together since the ship’s keel was laid in August 2015. Newport News Shipbuilding photo.

Regarding the three-year carrier centers, the aides were restricted in what they could say due to the full NDAA language and its funding tables not being released yet. But the aide said that the committee could show support for more rapid carrier construction through allowing economic order quantity authority for CVNs 80 and 81, and it could begin advance procurement funds a year early for CVN-81, which would put it into this FY 2018 NDAA. The bill does, in fact, include economic order quantity authority, and the funding tables will be made available closer to next week’s full committee markup.

The bill also advocates buying material for the remaining Refueling and Complex Overhauls, for CVNs 74 through 77, in a long-term block buy strategy as a cost-saving measure.

HASC could not comment yet on the quantity of Littoral Combat Ships it hopes to buy in 2018. The Navy asked for just one, but the day after the budget request went to the Hill the Trump Administration clarified it actually supported buying two. The administration has still not told lawmakers how it would pay for the second one, and HASC still does not have clarity on its topline for the 2018 NDAA, all of which means the NDAA bill rolled out next week could potentially include one, two or three LCSs, the aide said.