The Navy has grand plans for its next-generation ballistic missile submarine, pushing it deeper into the research-and-development phase in fiscal 2014 — and one step closer to production — with a healthy $1.1 billion investment that amounts to roughly double what the service spent on the program last year.
The new submarine is expensive by any measure, with the total price tag for developing and purchasing the 12 ships estimated at a staggering $93 billion. Lawmakers and Navy officials, however, believe that the cost of modernizing a critical leg of the three-pronged nuclear deterrent is well worth its price.
But the Navy’s plans to replace its venerable Ohio-class submarines may be slowed at a critical time for the program, thanks to a stopgap continuing resolution (PL 113-46) that forces the Defense Department and other federal agencies to spend at fiscal 2013 levels.
The current continuing resolution expires Jan. 15, but there is growing concern both within the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill that the political stalemate over spending may ultimately force another extension of that stopgap spending bill, perhaps for the rest of fiscal 2014.
The Defense Department, unlike most other federal agencies, has never operated under a yearlong continuing resolution in the modern budgeting era, which began in the mid-1970s. But Democrats on Capitol Hill are already signaling that the military’s spending bill will not receive the preferential treatment it has in years past.
Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada insist the defense bill is just one among the 12 appropriations measures, a senior congressional Democratic aide said last week.
Meanwhile, Mikulski and House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., have both made clear they want to see all 12 of those measures ultimately enacted, a steep climb in a Congress that has become increasingly reliant on CRs for most agencies.
Defense Department officials seem to be getting the message.
Less than a month into the fiscal year, they are already warning about the long-term consequences of operating under a lengthy continuing resolution, arguing that it creates a mismatch between funding and priorities while also forcing the Pentagon to abandon new programs.
Despite the partisan gridlock, many observers believe Congress will ultimately agree to a bill to fund the Pentagon, which consumes about half of all federal discretionary spending. The stakes of abdicating that responsibility are simply too high.
“Congress goes out of its way to make sure it marks up $500 billion,” said Russell Rumbaugh, an analyst at the nonpartisan Stimson Center. “National defense is important and Congress takes time to do it.”