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Armed Services Committees Look to Make Fiscal Room for Naval Shipbuilding Plans

Courtesy U.S. Navy
This artist rendering illustrates a proposed replacement for the Navy’s current force of 14 Ohio-class submarines.

Members of Congress and Navy officials were wringing their hands late last year over a roughly $60 billion shortfall forecast between 2021 and 2035 in the Navy’s 30-year shipbuilding plan.

Two-thirds of that expected shortfall would result from the $93 billion program to replace the Navy’s Ohio-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines. Such a cost might reduce the amount the Navy would have to buy some other kinds of ships, with the result that it would take two decades for the Navy to increase its battle force from its current 288 ships to its goal of 306.

The House and the Senate Armed Services committees have a solution, though. They have included provisions in their respective fiscal 2015 defense policy bills (HR 4435, S 2410) that, with a stroke of the president’s pen, could significantly relieve the strain on the Navy’s shipbuilding plans.Rather than pay for the submarines from the Navy’s regular budget, the bills would create a special National Sea-Based Deterrence Fund to cover the cost of the Ohio-class submarine replacement.

By elevating the submarine program directly under the control of the secretary of Defense — not unlike the Missile Defense Agency — lawmakers hope to avoid having the Navy’s top priority competing for money with its other warships, at least directly. With both committees supporting the idea, it is a virtual lock to become law.

The effect on the submarine program, senior congressional aides and experts say, is probably negligible because the Navy favors it over any other warship program. But the effect on the Navy’s shipbuilding account, which has typically ranged between $13 billion and $15 billion in recent years, could be significant, particularly if lawmakers and the Navy decided to maintain the same levels of budget authority for the account.

“The implications are enormous,” said Gordon Adams, who once oversaw the Pentagon’s budget while at the Office of Management and Budget. Adams is now a professor at American University. “The Navy wanted to get rid of this burden on the shipbuilding account.”

The shortfall represents about $4 billion annually over a 15-year period, or roughly 1 percent of the defense budget, Navy officials argue. Elevating the missile boat to the Defense secretary level potentially strengthens the case for funding the sub.

The new deterrence fund “allows the services to fight for what they view as core missions,” rather than making painful trade-offs between those core missions and a strategic mission they perform, Adams explained.

Costly Submarine

The Navy’s proposed fiscal 2015 budget requests $1.2 billion for continued research and development work on the Ohio replacement, a program to design and build a new class of 12 ballistic missile submarines to replace the Navy’s current force of 14 Ohio-class subs.

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