Lawmakers Still Lack Details on Pentagon Shipbuilding Plan

March 10, 2020 2:13 PM
USS Thomas Hudner (DDG-116) during construction at General Dynamics Bath Iron Works. BIW photo

Two senior lawmakers said they don’t have enough information to evaluate the Trump administration’s “hard rudder turn” on its shipbuilding budget that was presented last month to Congress.

“We’re weeks away from having to put this thing away,” and his panel doesn’t have the documents it requires for oversight, Rep. Joe Courtney, (D-Conn.), said on Monday at the Hudson Institute. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper ordered to hold off on delivering the Navy’s long-range shipbuilding plan pending a big Pentagon evaluation of the service’s upcoming force structure assessment.

Without the supporting documents about the course ahead, “this budget is really a problem,” he said. Even when the documents are provided, “we’re going to move heaven and earth to get [the budget request] changed” to boost shipbuilding, starting with restoring a Virginia-class submarine

The fear in the industrial base Navy shipbuilding has returned to a cycle of peaks and valleys that makes it difficult to hire and retain retaining skilled workers and make long-lead purchases necessary to build submarines and surface warships efficiently.

Rep. Rob Wittman, (R-Va.) at the same event, “you really have to emphasize the rebuilding of the Navy.” The shifting of $4 billion from shipbuilding to operations and maintenance in the Fiscal Year 2021 request means losing a second Virginia-class submarine. The shift also puts on hold decisions about destroyer buys, new classes of amphibious ships and the advisability of retiring aging ships.

The FY 2021 request for six warships and two tugs makes it impossible to reach the 355-ship fleet size target in the foreseeable future or even within the existing shipbuilding plan or force structure assessment, he said.

Both pointed to the growth of the Chinese fleet, expected to surpass the size of the American Navy within this decade as well as the modernization of the Russian submarine as key reasons to restore $4 billion to the shipbuilding account. It also means closely examine plans to retire some surface combatants.

Complicating matters now is that the legacy submarines and surface ships that are to be replaced like amphibious combatants were commissioned as part of the 1980s U.S. Navy fleet build-up.

The Los Angeles-class (SSN-688) boats, “are running out of hull life and reactor life,” Courtney added.

“We climbed over glass” to start rebuilding the submarine fleet as the first priority in expanding the size of the Navy. At the present rate of just one Virginia-class submarine authorized and funded, “the trough in the submarine fleet will run into the 2030s.”

The projected cost of restoring the second submarine this year would be $2 billion.

As to where the other $2 billion in restoring shipbuilding to last year’s $23 billion would be put, Courtney said the “results were pretty scary” from the turbo activation exercise on having the Ready Reserve Fleet getting underway to sustain a large-scale military operation so “it’s going to be another big focus. We need to respond to this stress test.”

Wittman, noting that logistics often receives short shrift in military planning, added, “the Navy has purchased zero” used cargo ships under a special program Congress approved several years ago to improve readiness and reduce the age of the sustainment fleet.

As for the high cost of upcoming Columbiaclass ballistic missile submarines consuming the shipbuilding account for the future, the administration needs to use the sea-based deterrence fund approved by Congress, Wittman said.

The question comes down to “how do we this [replace the Ohio-class] in the least disruptive way” to the shipbuilding accounts, Wittman said.

These submarines “will be on patrol right into the 2080s” and their cost has a one-time impact. “Do you let it suffocate the rest of the budget,” Courtney said. He added ballistic missile submarines are the most survivable leg of nuclear deterrence and the class “carries 70 percent of the nuclear payload.”

Both said there was precedent for using such a fund for strategic purposes, and the administration should make that move rather than having the Navy pay for Columbia out of its shipbuilding funds or the Air Force pay for the B-21 bomber out of its procurement budget.

Presence and deterrence does come down to numbers, both agreed.

“It’s not going to just be quality [of the American Navy], it’s going to quantity as well” that is needed to deter aggressive Chinese and Russian ambitions, Wittman said. He noted the Chinese construction of a second aircraft carrier and a cruiser as examples of Beijing expanding its maritime presence and influence well beyond its territorial waters.

Wittman said strategic and economic success “will focus on freedom of the seas.”

John Grady

John Grady

John Grady, a former managing editor of Navy Times, retired as director of communications for the Association of the United States Army. His reporting on national defense and national security has appeared on Breaking Defense,,,, Government Executive and USNI News.

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