By Hugh Lessig
Newport News Shipbuilding has a stake in a new and potentially divisive method for funding a future class of submarine, a project considered the Navy’s top priority.
At issue is how to replace the aging fleet of Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines, often referred to as “boomers,” which play an increasingly important role in America’s ability to deliver a nuclear punch.
Replacing the Ohio-class fleet with new submarines has been deemed so important — and so difficult to afford in tight fiscal times — that Congress has proposed funding them outside the Navy’s $15.7 billion annual shipbuilding budget.
The Newport News shipyard, a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries, has worked as a subcontractor to help design and engineer the Ohio-class replacement, also known as SSBN-X. Working in the lead is General Dynamics Electric Boat of Groton, Conn.
Those two yards now build the Virginia-class fast-attack submarine in a teaming arrangement that the Navy considers a big success. The boats are routinely delivered ahead of schedule and on budget.
Newport News officials, as well as two local congressmen influential on shipbuilding matters, expect the yard to play a role in building the SSBN-X as well. Construction is set to begin in the early 2020s.
But first, a majority in Congress must agree to squirrel away a few billion dollars in something called the National Sea Based Deterrence Fund.
Lawmakers created the fund in the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act. Language allows for $3.5 billion in seed money to be transferred there from unspent accounts. Ultimately, supporters want it to have a dedicated source of revenue from the Pentagon, not just the Navy.
“We felt it needed to be viewed as a separate national strategic asset as opposed to something that ought to come out of the Navy’s shipbuilding budget,” said Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Chesapeake, who heads the Sea Power and Projection Forces subcommittee.
“This is a national strategic asset that happens to be in the Navy,” agreed Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Westmoreland, who oversees the panel on military readiness.
Both point to the difficult math when considering Navy’s long-range shipbuilding plan. It sets aside about $15.7 billion annually for new ship construction. The Ohio-class replacement submarines are expected to cost around $5.5 billion a year and possibly more. Forbes said the annual shipbuilding budget would need an extra $4 billion to accommodate the project.
Doing that would rob the Navy of its ability to build other ships, Wittman said.
“What do we do then? Do we not build an aircraft carrier? Do you build several destroyers? That’s the magnitude of what we’re talking about if you keep it within the shipbuilding budget,” he said.
Not everyone is convinced.
“From a budgeting standpoint, this makes no sense,” wrote Ryan Alexander, head of the group Taxpayers for Common Sense in October 2014. “It isn’t reducing the cost of the submarine. It doesn’t lower the top line of Pentagon spending. All it does is temporarily relieve the pressure on the Navy’s budget.”
In December, the group took another shot at the National Sea-Based Deterrence Fund in a blog post under the headline “Deterring What Exactly? Good Budgeting Practices?”
It raised the point that other services might want to get into the game.
“Calling submarines national assets because they are ‘owned, operated or controlled by the Department of Defense’ is hooey. We’re pretty sure that the Air Force’s silo-based intercontinental ballistic missiles are similarly owned. … Why should the Navy be the only service to benefit from this creative accounting?”
Wittman said such a request from the Air Force wouldn’t surprise him.
“That’s always a possibility, especially in a time of scarce resources,” he said. “We do need to modernize our nuclear arsenal. But we are much, much closer to the stage of needing to begin construction of SSBN-X than we are with the other parts of our nuclear arsenal.”
Added Forbes: “We always see institutional inertia and protectiveness about services and agencies. To say that wouldn’t have a role would be naive on my part.”
But there are estimates that the Ohio-class replacement could make up 70 percent of America’s nuclear deterrence — the most important leg of the U.S. nuclear triad that includes land-based missiles and long-range bombers.
“When you look at that component, it would be hard for someone with a straight face to say we don’t need this,” Forbes said.
Eighteen Ohio-class submarines entered service between 1981 and 1997, according to data from the Congressional Research Service. Originally designed for 30-year lives, the boats were later certified for 42 years of service.
During the Clinton administration, the first four Ohio-class boats were converted to cruise-missile submarines, which do not carry a nuclear payload. The current fleet stands at 14, homeported in King’s Bay, Ga., and Bangor, Wash., in Puget Sound. Unlike other Navy ships, Ohio-class submarines operate with alternating crews to maximize their time at sea.
Its basic mission is to stay at sea, in hiding, ready to launch its ballistic missiles. It is considered the most survivable leg of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
The Ohio-class replacement program proposes to replace the current fleet of 14 submarines with 12 more advanced boats. The first boat in the class is expected to cost $12.4 billion. The Navy has estimated the cost of the remaining boats at $6 billion, with the goal of reducing that to $5.5 billion, according to a December report from the Congressional Budget Office.
CBO says the submarines will be more expensive, pegging the lead ship at $13.8 billion and a $7.1 billion average cost for the remaining ships.
That’s a good deal less than the smaller Virginia-class submarines, which are now being built at a rate of two per year. Last fall, Newport News christened the John Warner, expected to come in at less than $2 billion.
An economic boomer
The Ohio-class submarines were built at Electric Boat in Connecticut, and that yard is leading the effort to design SSBN-X, with Newport News also performing work.
Electric Boat and Newport News are the only two U.S. shipyards capable of building nuclear-powered submarines. Because of that, and because the two yards have worked together to build Virginia-class boats, Wittman and Forbes are confident that Newport News will see a chunk of business from the Ohio class replacement program.
“We only have two games in town,” Forbes said. “It’s not like you can go to a mall somewhere else.”
Newport News officials, through spokeswoman Christie Miller, said they are confident about playing a role in the Ohio replacement program, with specifics yet to be determined.
The Virginia class teaming arrangement happened in part because Congress wanted two shipyards with the capability to build nuclear submarines. That way, if one yard is knocked out of commission or the U.S. wants to ramp up production, it has the flexibility. Wittman said that argument still holds.
“I think the teaming arrangement is absolutely critical,” he said. “When we get to the point of the design being mature and the development process started, I fully expect that Congress will be very specific about how it sees this process taking place. My vision is that it will involve both yards — details yet to be determined.”