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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.