Christopher P. Cavas, Defense News
11 June 2015
WASHINGTON – Congressional support for the U.S. Navy's SSBN(X) Ohio Replacement Submarine program remains strong – among Republicans and Democrats, House and Senate. But there remains strong disagreement on how to structure the GAO-estimated $95.8 billion cost to develop, design and build the program's 12 ships.
Led by House Seapower chairman Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., Congress in 2015 approved the creation of a National Sea-Based Deterrence Fund (NSBDF), a set-aside account that would accrue funds to pay for the program from now until well into the 2030s. But Forbes, as an authorizer, could only create the account, not fund it. And the question on how to fund the NSBDF came up in all four Navy posture hearings this year to discuss the 2016 budget submission.
Appropriators don't necessarily appreciate authorizers coming up with their own funding mechanisms, and a passionate spat has broken out between Forbes and his allies on the House Armed Services Committee, and opponents led by Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., chairman of the House Appropriations Defense subcommittee. Both Republican chairmen are strongly supported by each subcommittee's Democratic ranking members.
The issue was on full display on June 10 as the House debated an amendment that would eliminate the fund.
Frelinghuysen noted the fund's structure would allow the secretary of defense to "divert dollars into this new fund from the Army, Marines, Air Force, Special Forces, missile defense, [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance programs], and other types of essential programs.
"This is the wrong approach," said Frelinghuysen. "It removes, furthermore, congressional oversight from the secretary of defense."
Rep. Peter Visclosky, D-Ind., and ranking member of the appropriations subcommittee, was more adamant.
The fund, he said, "simply shifts the burden for paying for their construction from the Department of the Navy to the entire Department of Defense."
Supporters of the submarine program, Visclosky said, "indicate that this is a national priority, and I would not argue that point. These systems play a very important role in our nuclear deterrence, so do our long-range bombers and the weapons that they carry." Those Air Force assets, he said, "also provide protection for this country as well as the weapons they carry. I think they qualify as national asset distinctions. Should we then set up funds for these programs?
"Let's think about other priorities within the department," Visclosky continued. "Should we set up a fund for the Army's 82nd Airborne [Division]? Should we set up a fund for the Air Force combat rescue officers? They are very deserving. Should we set up a fund for the special Marine Air-Ground Task Force? They are very deserving."
But Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., and ranking member of the Seapower subcommittee, noted that under the latest agreements, 70 percent of the nation's nuclear triad will be borne by the Navy's strategic submarines, with the remaining 30 percent split between Air Force bombers and Army ground-based missiles.
"The Air Force and their long-range bombers and the Army, with their ground-based systems, are not going to be bearing the same burden," Courtney noted.
The submarine-based missile system, he said, "was funded on a separate account because these are national assets that provided assistance and national security across the board for the Pentagon."
Forbes cited a recent vote where 90 percent of the House turned back a similar amendment and cited the fund's widespread support. The fund, he said, would work to prepare for the submarines before the time of need.
"The national sea-based deterrence fund we formed last year helps us prepare for ... in advance, instead of waiting until the night before to come up with $92 billion. It transfers $1.4 billion into a fund and allows the Department of Defense to find other moneys – a rare thing for the government to actually prepare in advance, instead of waiting until the last minute to prepare. It will help to purchase in bulk and save perhaps millions, maybe even billions of dollars."
A voice vote on the amendment appeared to be even and was called for the nays, but the recorded vote showed a decisive win to keep the fund, the full House voting 321-111 in support.
"The National Sea-Based Deterrence Fund is a serious solution for the once-in-a-generation challenge of building the Ohio Replacement submarine," Forbes said in a June 11 statement.
Courtney cited the "clear and strong bipartisan support" for the bill.
"I am proud to have worked closely with Chairman Forbes to advance our shared goals of implementing the NSBDF," Courtney said in his statement, "and look forward to continuing our partnership to ensure the future of both the Ohio Replacement Program and the Navy's fleet."