The Senate Appropriations Committee, led by Alabama Republican Richard C. Shelby, added more than three quarters of a billion dollars to its new Pentagon spending bill for warships that were not sought by the Navy but are built by Shelby’s constituents.
Tucked deep inside the draft Senate Pentagon spending bill is $500 million for an “LHA replacement,” the next in the America class of amphibious assault ships, which are smaller versions of aircraft carriers and are designed to carry Marines and their aircraft.
The America class of ships is being built by Huntington Ingalls Industries in Pascagoula, Miss., right next to Alabama, and many of the shipyard workers are Alabamians.
When the late Thad Cochran, R-Miss., was a leader of the Senate’s Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, he would often add funds for ships made in Pascagoula. Shelby appears to be continuing that tradition.
Also buried in the Senate’s new Pentagon spending bill is $260 million for an Expeditionary Fast Transport ship, a 330-foot-long troop transport vessel made by Austal USA in Mobile, Ala.
The huge proposed additions to the Pentagon budget for ships that the Navy did not seek, and their connection to the Appropriations chairman, have not been publicized.
Not only did the Navy not ask for this funding in its formal budget request, the money was not even part of the service’s $5 billion-plus in so-called “unfunded priorities” — items the service’s top admirals would have wanted if the near-record Pentagon budget had been larger.
A Senate Appropriations aide said the committee added the funds to “achieve a more efficient construction plan” for LHA and to “address shortfalls in the amphibious warfare portfolio,” which have been exacerbated by fire damage to another ship.
The proposed boost for unrequested ships comes as the Navy struggles to add to its fleet the ships that it says it needs and also faces challenges paying to reduce a backlog in the maintenance work that is required to keep the ships it has bought in operation.
The proposed addition of Gulf Coast shipyard money to the Defense bill is likely to be a bone of contention when House and Senate appropriators sit down to reconcile their two Pentagon money measures.
The House did not provide any funding for the America class. The House did, however, add more than $2 billion for a second Virginia class submarine in fiscal 2021 — a sub that the Senate bill did not fund.
The second attack submarine was not part of the formal budget request. But, unlike the America class warship or the expeditionary transport vessel, the sub was at least on the Navy’s list of unfunded priorities.
The shipbuilding budget is shaping up to be the main area of disagreement between House and Senate appropriators as they look to enact spending bills for the Pentagon and other agencies before the stopgap spending measure now funding the government elapses on Dec. 11.
The two chambers’ Pentagon spending bills are both generous with Navy shipbuilding programs, albeit in different ways.
The Pentagon wanted $19.9 billion for new ship construction in fiscal 2021. The House bill, by comparison, proposes $22.3 billion for warship construction, almost $1 billion more than the $21.4 billion in the Senate measure.