Navy brass gets grilling on defective ships, idle subs, other spending priorities

At a hearing with Navy leaders, Rep. Visclosky hinted he may rearrange the service’s budget plan to address concerns

Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Ind., testifies before a House Appropriations Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies Subcommittee hearing in Rayburn Building on April 18, 2018. Visclosky hinted he may rearrange the Navy's budget plan to address concerns including warship defects and idle submarines. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Indiana Democrat Peter J. Visclosky, the son of an ironworker and an ardent shipbuilding advocate, is signaling that his first bill as chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense may not actually go so easy on the Navy.

The 18-term lawmaker has long championed construction of Navy ships, perhaps partly because so many of them are made with Indiana steel. But the longtime leader of the Congressional Steel Caucus is worried about warship defects and idle submarines, and he’s not pleased with a dearth of daycare at Navy bases.

At a hearing this week with Navy leaders, he hinted he may rearrange the service’s budget plan to address those concerns.

Visclosky referred to Government Accountability Office reports on the prevalence of defects in new Navy ships and how private shipyards, having been paid to build the ships, are frequently paid still more to fix deficiencies after ships are delivered to the Navy.

In fact, GAO recently found that, in cases where the shipyards were responsible for defects, fully 96 percent of the cost of fixing them is borne by the government and not the shipyards.

The chairman has asked the Navy a series of questions about this issue, but he said the answers to date have been “lacking.”

Indeed, at the hearing, Navy Secretary Richard Spencer struggled with explaining what the Navy is doing about this, except to assert that some recent ships have been quite capable.

In reality, GAO’s recent audits have turned up only one ship that was delivered to the fleet for operational use free of major deficiencies, CQ Roll Call reported in March.

And the Navy has only once in recent memory rejected a ship because of defects, despite frequent opportunities to do so, experts say.

Visclosky told Spencer and Adm. John Richardson, the chief of naval operations, that a waiter or waitress working in a diner somewhere foots the bill for fixing defects caused by the shipyards.

“Some of that money somebody’s being paid on defects is coming out of that person’s pocket,” Visclosky said.

Idle subs, dearth of daycare

Of all the Navy’s ships, its submarines were most central to Tuesday’s hearing.

Spencer allowed that he is worried that the $128 billion Columbia class nuclear-missile submarine program has no slack in its schedule. The first of 12 planned Columbia subs is supposed to be on patrol in 2031, because the oldest of the outgoing class, the Ohio boats, is expected to come to the end of its life in 2029.

“We do have concern, and I would be remiss if I didn’t say that,” Spencer said of the Columbia program’s schedule and cost.

In fact, a meeting with industry executives is planned in the coming days to address the challenges, Spencer said.

Attack subs, too, were a hot hearing topic. Visclosky grilled Spencer and Richardson about the fact that $600 million-plus needed to maintain three attack subs in fiscal 2020 was not requested in the president’s budget but only communicated to Congress later on a list of purported necessities that did not make the budget cut.

Visclosky asked the brass why the Navy wants to buy three new Virginia class subs in fiscal 2020 — and advance procurement funds for three others — if the service lacks the maintenance money to keep the subs it already has in the water.

Spencer said the problem was caused by budget cuts. But Visclosky was not buying that, noting it has been several years since the Pentagon’s budget was reduced from one year to the next.

To deal with the maintenance backlog, the Navy is turning increasingly to private shipyards to handle maintenance work that had previously been performed largely at public yards.

Still, the maintenance backlog has kept numerous attack subs out of service for months. One sub, the USS Boise, has lost its certification to dive while awaiting maintenance that was supposed to be done in 2013.

Visclosky also trained his focus on a completely different topic: the more than 8,000 Navy and Marine Corps families that lack daycare for their children at Navy facilities, especially in San Diego, Hawaii, D.C. and Norfolk.

He noted that the fiscal 2020 budget contains only negligible increases in funding for childcare programs.

Richardson said the service is exploring its options, which include subsidies for families to use private daycare.

“I do not want to wait until fiscal 2021,” Visclosky said.

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