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Rep. Courtney: Looming Costs Will Force Decision on How to Pay for SSBNs

A sailor explains the layout and functionality of Ford’s flight deck to Rep. Joe Courtney in 2016. US Navy Photo

How to pay for the upcoming Columbia-class ballistic-missile submarine “will have a life of its own” this spring and may force the Navy and Pentagon to embrace a dedicated funding account they have so far only partially leveraged, a key congressman on the House Armed Services Committee predicted.

In 2013, HASC pushed the new account through the House and Senate despite some at-times fierce opposition. The National Sea-Based Deterrence Fund (NSBDF) noted that the SSBN program would be a national security asset more than a Navy-only program and therefore ought to be paid for by the Pentagon rather than draining the Navy’s shipbuilding budget account.

The Navy has used some of the purchasing authorities that come along with the NSBDF – incrementally buying components of the boats ahead of need to allow for even and efficient production, or purchasing components that are common to the Virginia-class attack sub or Ford-class carrier in cross-program contracts to save money. However, each spring when the President’s Budget request comes out, Columbia-class funding continues to be listed in the shipbuilding and conversion account (SCN) rather than in the standalone NSBDF.

Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.), a longtime HASC member and the likely next chairman of the seapower and projection forces subcommittee – as well as a key proponent of the creation of the NSBDF back in 2013 – told USNI News in a recent interview that “we know the merits, we know the argument backwards and forwards in terms of why the NSBDF should become fully operational, and certainly if and when I become chair of the subcommittee that’s going to be an issue we can’t escape, so we have to address it.”

In late November, Vice Adm. Bill Merz, deputy chief of naval operations for warfare systems (OPNAV N9), told USNI News after a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that the SSBN was still the Navy’s top acquisition priority and that talks with the Pentagon about funding the program outside of the shipbuilding budget are ongoing as the 2021 start of construction nears.

“Columbia will be funded; it’s really the impact on the rest of the shipbuilding account that we have to negotiate with how we’re going to cover down,” he said.

Columbia-class illustration

Still, Courtney told USNI News after reading Merz’s comments that he believes “institutional inertia” is keeping the Navy and the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) from just putting the program in the NSBDF like it belongs, in his view.

“it’s clear that the Navy is seeing the bow wave of Columbia in terms of its pressure on the shipbuilding account – and it’s fast approaching and getting bigger with every minute. The notion that they support the supplemental fund; I mean, I’m glad to read that – as you know it was Congress who created the Sea Based Deterrence Fund back in 2013 because we saw this coming years ago. … [the Congressional Budget Office] validated the value of NSBDF in terms of the savings that Columbia can secure with the authorities that we provided to the Navy, and the question of the day is just when is the Navy and OSD going to take yes for an answer from Congress?” Courtney said.
“Really, we’ve given them the tools to address this issue. Again, there’s precedent for it: the sealift fund that was created in the 1990s existed for exactly the same reason, so there’s precedent, there’s legal authority, it’s in the statute. And again, it’s great that they’re verbally endorsing this mechanism, but at some point the budget-makers have to embrace it and incorporate it into the president’s budget, and certainly the subcommittee is prepared to take the baton and run with it when they finally, as I said, take yes for an answer.”

Congressman Joe Courtney visited General Dynamics Electric Boat on Sept. 17, 2018, to tour the Active Learning Centers. Electric Boat photo via Twitter.

Asked what a seapower subcommittee under a Chairman Courtney would do to force the Pentagon’s hand, Courtney said, “right now we’re still in the spring training as far as HASC is concerned, but I’m talking to staff about ideas for next year. But again, this issue has a life of its own and it’s going to force its way onto the agenda. And I’m glad it was publicly emphasized [at the SASC hearing], but it’s something we need to have the Pentagon understand that this is a national strategic asset, not a Navy program per se, and treat it that way.”

The congressman said the Pentagon was supportive of a similar move when the Army struggled to afford a ground-based missile defense system, pulling that out of the Army into an OSD budget line to avoid hurting other Army acquisition priorities. He said he’s dismayed that the Navy is only halfway leveraging the NSBDF now and hopes they’ll do better in the Fiscal Year 2020 budget request and beyond.

As of a few years ago, money was flowing into and out of NSBDF, but all the dollars being used from that fund to pay for the common components and the early procurement of missile tubes originated in the Navy shipbuilding account, was transferred by the Treasury into the NSBDF, and was then used to pay for contracts. Courtney said the Navy is missing “the real value that the statute provides” by still starting Columbia funding in the shipbuilding account and therefore putting billions of dollars of pressure on other shipbuilding needs each year.

“The issue is so overwhelming in terms of the impact on the shipbuilding account, it’s going to have a life of its own” in 2019, Courtney predicted.

  • Curtis Conway

    IMHO the National Sea-Based Deterrence Fund (NSBDF) should be redefined into a common Strategic Nuclear Deterrence Fund (SNDF) similar to the Shipbuilding and Conversion (Navy (SCN) appropriations) account, established by Congress to specifically fund Nuclear Deterrent Forces only. This fund would provide for the Columbia Class FBM development & construction, Common ICBM/FBM recapitalization, ICBM Missile Launch Complex upgrades and maintenance, upgrades and maintenance of all nuclear warheads including its support infrastructure, and any nuclear weapon transport, deliver/release of nuclear weapons (platform agnostic) to include platforms that provide command, control and communications of said assets. This fund would include alternative basing modes (rail or wheeled mobilization) if developed and fielded. Such a measure will protect these funds from being raided, and preserve them for their intended purposes. All of these items have been put off for far too long.

    • USNVO

      The problem any program has is it competes with all the other programs. So regardless of who funds it within the DoD, it comes out of the DoD budget (as it should). SECDEF still has to sign off on the budget submission (note that SECDEF could have ordered the service secretaries at anytime to prioritize nuclear programs) so why does adding a new layer of bureaucracy solve the problem?

      • Curtis Conway

        We have discussed the topic and had the argument before. The fact of the matter is the Nuclear Deterrence (TRIAD) infra structure HAS NOT been under proper stewardship, upgraded, and modernized even as those individuals personal automobiles have been. Let us consider the fact that upgrading and maintaining the most important aspect of American Defense, and the element in the equation that has kept the peace on our planet, has been put off, and put off, and put off . . . how many times, and in the FBM equation, until physics catches up with us on the ‘risk of use’ equation on the Ohio Class platforms.

        • USNVO

          Not disagreeing with you, just pointing out that SECDEF gets to prioritize spending. At any time in the past, he could have decided to direct the Navy to upgrade the SSBN fleet, or to replace the Minuteman IIIs, or develop new nuclear weapons, etc. He could have directed additional funds be made available to the services for those programs. He chose not to, so why would adding a new bureaucracy fix the problem? It is a matter of priority and you can ignore something as a DoD program as easy as a service program, maybe easier because once the service secretaries dump it on someone else, they won’t fight for it anymore (not that they did a lot before).

          • Curtis Conway

            I typically assign way too much integrity to the Powers that Be. They eat good, drive nice cars, own a big house, kids go to good schools, regardless of what happens to the rest of the country.

          • Rocco

            Drink & be Merry 🍻

          • Duane

            Actually, no. It is Congress and Congress alone that prioritizes defense spending. SecDef has literally nothing to do with deciding to build SSBNs or DDGs or CVNs or tanks or bullets or whatever.

            Every single defense purchase down even to relatively minor stuff like ammo for guns is line-itemed out in the annual NDAA laws and then actually funded with the annual appropriations bills. There are perhaps a few “slush funds” but those are slushy only because they involve highly secret black programs that, if detailed out in an appropriations law would give away too much info to our adversaries.

            A good example of that is the B-21 bomber program whose technical capabilities are extremely well guarded. A great historical example was the Manhattan Project.

          • USNVO

            Congress, specifically the House of Representatives, must initiate all spending bills, they must be passed by Congress, and they must be either signed by the President, allowed to go into law without a presidential signature, or vetoed by the president and then over ridden by Congress.

            OK, so that’s enough of Civics 101.

            In the real world, where real people live and work, the SECDEF, with the President’s approval of course, gets to direct how to divvy up the requested budget that is submitted to Congress. Congress then takes the proposed budget and marks it up. Outside of the typical earmark for funds for things that help their districts, Congress rarely gets too much into the minutia of the line items. So in effect, since the Defense Department did not ask for updated nuclear forces, Congress did not provide same. Any SECDEF in the last 20 years could have asked for significant nuclear upgrades but none did. The same is true with a president making it an issue. None did. That speaks volumes.

            Even then, it just proves my point that adding layers of bureaucracy doesn’t fix anything.

    • Marc Apter

      As long as it can only be used for only single mission systems, NSBDF/SNDF and not for dual use systems, like a new Air Force Bomber or cruise missile launch submarines and ships or dual use Army short range missiles or long range artillery, then I agree with you and will try and get my Representative/Senators to support it.

  • b2

    I can see where this HASC member thinks he can get funding just by the authors selection of pictures used in the article.. Especially that first one with the hardhat aboard the new CVN…

    Alert- President Trump/Sec Shanahan/SECNAV H-46 pilot :

    This SSBN offering would replace its predecessor hull as part of the strategic nuclear TRIAD, along with nuc capable B-2 bombers and ICBM missiles in WY, operationally led by those folks in Omaha (STRATCOM). IE- this expensive hull replacement is not part of your 350 Navy ship plan similar to the Reagan build up you proposed, but rather are for Strategic Nuclear deterrence only…Their mission is not a traditional Navy Bluewater, War at Sea mission. I know you know this but don’t let ’em fool you up there.

    Further, this congressman only cares about his shipyard and his and GDs sole source lock to build subs.. Basically he oversees the Golden Goose of the 2nd district of CT… And now he is somebody…. IMO, as a small town lawyer he has no feel for the real US Navy other than mercenary and is purely submarine oriented due to all the political BS after the last Republican congressman in CT to exist fought real hard to keep the Groton base/imdustrial complex open 10-12 years ago…

    Beware.

    • Chesapeakeguy

      Well put..

  • Graniteman31

    Interesting juxtaposition of posts: funding for 2 new carriers being approved : funding for SSBNs needed.
    Hm: build 1 less carrier & 1 more SSBN.

    • Rocco

      I think we can squeeze 3 subs for the price of a junk Ford carrier?

      • Graniteman31

        As long as it’s what the USN needs – not what some politician wants.

        • tom dolan

          There are currently 14 Ohio class SSBNs in the fleet after 4 were converted to SSGNs. Those four can carry up to 156 cruise missiles as well as field teams of up to 66 Seals. None of the Ohio class will be retired until 2029 at the earliest and the Ohio herself is the oldest and has been converted to a SSGN.

        • Rocco

          Nothing to do with what I said cost wise

  • Ed L

    Grab all the super pac and election campain funds the politicans have squired away. That would help out a little.

  • tom dolan

    Ultimately I’m guessing that the Columbia’s will never be constructed in significant numbers anyway, certainly never in Cold War era number. The country doesn’t have the appetite to sink declining defense dollars into Doomsday weapons systems especially when the naval mission is seen as primarily keeping the sea lanes open for commerce. If they buy the Columbia in greater numbers it will be at the expense of the B21 and the Sugar Jets will never let their Congressional lobby allow it.

    • Rocco

      Who are you to deside what this country has a stomach for??
      Not in agreement here. I’d rather see more subs built. Dooms day machine…. Seriously though! Columbia is an multisub class!

      • tom dolan

        I’m a realist. The supposed reason to build this sub class is deterrence of primarily Russia. They’ve added one modern SSBN to their order of battle in the last 30 years. The Chinese? Spare me. I’m all for a strong national defense built on rational defense needs. Both the Columbia and the B21 are meant to defend campaign contributions not America

        • Rocco

          Yeah your a real liberal!! Not a realist!! Then you would recognize that are sub fleet I old & needs replacement! I’m an Aviationest. But the Ford class should never have been built. You can have the B21

          • tom dolan

            Actually I was a carrier sailor during the Cold War. Now isn’t then. They’re converting Ohio class SSBNs to cruise missile and Seal team platforms. Why if they need ballistic missile platforms? With limited funding all the ships of the Navy need to have utility so we’ll need more attack submarines then currently funded. The Columbia class will be a three boat buy for budget cooperation like the Zumwalt class.

          • Rocco

            So was I from mid 70’s -80’s , 3 Carriers

          • tom dolan

            Constellation and Kitty Hawk. …till May 1980. I may disagree with you but I don’t mean to be diagreeable.