By William D. Hartung and Erica Fein
Congressional defense appropriators and authorizers are engaged in an oversight food fight over the Ohio-class replacement program to acquire the next-generation ballistic missile submarine.
But this is not just fun-to-follow inside baseball. Who wins has implications for Congress’ ability to insist on fiscal discipline at the Pentagon and for the future of nuclear modernization budgeting.
Appropriators want to ensure the Navy is required to fund the Ohio-class’ $90 billion-plus procurement costs within its obligated budget. Members of the Armed Services Committee — the authorizers — want the subs funded in a separate account outside the Navy’s regular budget. The account, known as the Sea-Based Deterrence Fund, is an unprecedented scheme that the Navy, the shipbuilding lobby and their congressional allies have been promoting for several years as a way to avoid making tough decisions about what ships are most needed to address 21st century challenges.
Under current law, the Department of Defense may transfer funds from other programs into this off-the-books account.
The Navy has acknowledged that its 30-year shipbuilding plan is “unsustainable,” in part due to the procurement costs of the ballistic missile sub. Yet, according to the Senate Appropriations Committee, the Navy is not taking steps to address this problem. Accordingly, the committee has stated it will not allow the transfer of funds into this new account.
House appropriators have attempted to impose this prohibition as well. Arguing against a pro-submarine fund amendment, Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, chairman of the Appropriations Committee’s defense subcommittee, said, “If the president determines the Ohio-class replacement is a must-fund platform, then the Navy should buy it, just as it has every other submarine in its inventory.”
But the Armed Services Committee members have powerful allies. The ballistic missile submarine has been a longstanding lobbying priority for groups like the Submarine Industrial Base Council (SIBC) and the Navy League. The SIBC is underwritten by General Dynamics, the company most likely to build the next-generation ballistic missile sub. The Navy League is a membership organization with over 60,000 members in 250 chapters throughout the United States and receives regular contributions from corporate “gold members” that include BAE, Boeing, General Dynamics, Honeywell, Huntington Ingalls and Lockheed Martin.
More concerning is the Navy’s own alleged lobbying for this fund. A Project on Government Oversight (POGO) investigation suggests that Adm. John Richardson may have broken the law against lobbying by federal employees when he told a group at a Naval Submarine League meeting to urge members of Congress to support the separate submarine account.
His colleague, Rear Adm. Joe Tofalo, underscored the point when he said, “If anybody needs help in strategic messaging … let us know … if you need trifolds, priorities briefs, [or] talking points for your congressman, we are more than happy to support you.”
The Navy is currently investigating whether the admirals violated lobbying restrictions, but POGO has also called for an independent investigation by the Government Accountability Office.
Proponents of the separate submarine account have argued that submarines carrying nuclear warheads should be considered “national assets.” Yet, as Taxpayers for Common Sense has noted, the account sets a “terrible precedent” that might be adopted by the other services, fueling budgetary chaos in the process.
Indeed, Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee Ranking Member Pete Visclosky, D-Ind., put it this way: “Long-range bombers 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?”
In fact, the Air Force has already signaled that it likes this idea.
“Some of it we hope will be a Department of Defense solution,” said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh, referring to his service’s nuclear modernization plans, which include a new stealthy long-range bomber, next-generation intercontinental ballistic missiles and a replacement air-launched cruise missile.
If the new submarine account is funded, it will simply drain resources from other, more urgent priorities like military readiness. Fortunately, there are clear fixes. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that moving from the planned buy of 12 subs to eight would free up $15.7 billion for other purposes over the next decade while still ensuring current deterrence requirements.
When the Senate considers the defense appropriations bill, senators should follow the appropriators’ lead and reject the idea of using the Sea-Based Deterrence Fund budget gimmick for the Ohio-class replacement. Fiscal discipline and sound defense planning demand it.
Hartung is director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy, and Fein is nuclear weapons policy director at Women’s Action for New Directions.