Congress Pushes Back on Virginia-Class Submarine Cut

By Connie Lee
Virginia-class fast-attack submarine USS Hawaii (SSN 776) off the coast of Oahu, Hawaii

Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Daniel Hinton

Lawmakers are protesting a move to purchase one less Virginia-class submarine in fiscal year 2021, as outlined in President Donald Trump’s budget request released in February.

Traditionally, General Dynamics’ Electric Boat and Huntington Ingalls Industries’ Newport News Shipbuilding have built two Virginia-class boats each year since 2011.

However, the president’s new fiscal blueprint only procures one. Budget justification documents call for $4.9 billion for the vessel.

The Navy has a contract with Electric Boat and Newport News Shipbuilding for nine submarines between 2019 and 2023, with an option for a 10th ship.

The Trump administration’s decision is part of a bigger move to cut the Navy’s shipbuilding budget by $4 billion, according to the budget request. The plan includes acquiring 44 vessels through 2025. Last year, the service planned to procure 55.

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday said in a February House Armed Services Committee hearing that the Virginia-class decision was made “at the budget end game very quickly,” and that service officials were only informed after the decision was made.

Procurement for the second ship was included in the Navy’s unfunded priorities list.

Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I., a member of HASC’s seapower and projection forces subcommittee, said the process was concerning. “The decision was made after the fact and not, it seems, with your input,” he told Gilday. “That does not inspire confidence here.”

Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., chairman of the subcommittee, said the move was at odds with the Navy’s priorities.

“Year after year, Congress has heard from Navy leaders, combatant commanders and experts about the growing demand for submarine capabilities as countries like China and Russia step up their undersea activity,” he said in a statement. “They have urgently warned us that we need more submarine construction, not less, in order to mitigate the nearly 20 percent reduction in the fleet we presently face within this decade.”

Senators also expressed concern about the move. In a bipartisan letter to Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly, 17 senators outlined their worries, noting that the decision contradicts the National Defense Strategy, which prioritizes great power competition with China and Russia. The document was signed by 14 Democrats and three Republicans.

“This budget request exacerbates this shortfall by decreasing investment in the Virginia-class program,” the lawmakers said. “Such a decision would likely yield loss in capability that does not justify any short-term cost savings, particularly as Russia and China continue significant investment in their respective submarine fleets.”

The senators also expressed concern that the move would negatively impact the defense industrial base by leaving a gap between Block V and Block VI construction.

“This gap could contribute to supplier instability and workforce shortfalls at a time when the industrial base should be simultaneously executing Columbia-class construction,” the document stated. Columbia-class ballistic missile subs are slated to replace the legacy Ohio-class boats. They are the service’s top modernization priority.

Congress appropriated an additional $200 million in advanced procurement funding for a 10th Virginia-class boat with a new payload module last year, the senators noted.

However, if the service does not plan on pursuing the additional vessel, the lawmakers requested an assessment of how the decision would impact the delivery schedule for both the Virginia and Columbia-class programs.

Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Ind., chairman of the House Committee on Appropriations defense subcommittee, suggested that Pentagon officials omitted the boat in the request with the expectation that Congress would choose to provide funding regardless.

“I am bewildered by the Navy’s approach [to] the Virginia-class submarine program in the budget to remove funding for a second Virginia-class submarine … knowing full well that members of Congress on both sides of the aisle will advocate to find $2.8 billion needed to construct that boat,” he said during a March hearing. “It is clear to me that the Navy didn’t make the difficult choices required to reduce other programmatic funding to fund the second submarine and is expecting Congress to do so.”

Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, defined this budget tactic as “gold watching,” but noted that comments made by senior Navy officials during congressional hearings suggested that they were not privy to the decision to remove the second boat.

Defense Department leadership may have chosen to do so out of the concern that the submarine industrial base is “maxed out,” he speculated.

Defense officials have been looking to make cuts in the budget, and “the easiest thing to get big chunks of money from is procurement. And the biggest thing we procure in the military are ships,” he said.

Clark said industry is building submarines at an acceptable pace right now, but that it may be at capacity as it works to push out Columbia-class submarines as well.

“They’re still building submarines on a pretty good schedule,” Clark said. “They’ve been building Virginia-class submarines in approximately five and a half years … which is a little bit quicker than what the original plan was.” However, with the Columbia-class starting and the Virginia-class transition to Block V — which is a 30 percent larger submarine — the industrial base “is pretty much at capacity now,” he added.

However, the Defense Department should make its decision on the number of Virginia-class boats based on its strategic priorities, not on the industrial base, he suggested.

“Go ahead and buy the submarine and then let the industrial base sort out when they would be able to deliver it, because the capability requirement, apparently, is the highest priority in the service right now,” he said.

But if Congress ultimately decides against funding the second vessel, the submarine industrial base won’t be catastrophically affected because it is healthier than those of other ship classes, Clark noted.

“Taking one submarine out doesn’t mean that the industrial base would shut down or that shipyards ... would lay off people,” he said. “Taking out two destroyers or several frigates — what you would need to in order to capture the same amount of money — would have a much bigger impact on those portions of the industrial base.”

Rex Geveden, president and CEO of BWX Technologies, a company that provides nuclear reactors for the Navy, said the cut would begin to “taper” the company’s earnings at the end of this fiscal year, but that larger impacts would take effect next year.

Politics could make it unlikely that appropriations are passed on time, he noted.

“In terms of whether or not we can get a budget deal, I’m just looking at history,” he said during a February earnings call with analysts. “We never get a budget deal before October, and certainly in an election year I cannot imagine a budget deal before the election being signed off by the president.”

The administration’s decision to try to cut the submarine buy also comes at a time when the Navy is examining new ways of conducting operations that may rely more on the surface fleet for power projection, Clark noted. Areas such as the South China Sea and the North Atlantic may require a combination of surface ships with cruise missiles and carrier air wings to deliver weapons. But subs will still continue to be an important asset because they have unique capabilities, he said.

“The submarine fleet ends up having … this set of niche missions that only it can do, and therefore it will continue to be a priority for the Navy,” he said. “Only submarines can do the strikes with cruise missiles against targets that are well inland because the submarine can get in real close to somebody’s coast.”

The Navy is expected to release a new force structure assessment in the coming months that could shape the future fleet architecture.

Courtney, speaking during a February hearing, said Navy leadership has previously highlighted attack submarines as one of its biggest gaps between its warfighting requirements and its current inventory.

“It’s a wide gap, and it’s getting wider,” he said. “Every single submarine counts against closing that gap. At that point we were talking about going above the program of record — now we’re in a situation where we’re below the program of record of two a year.”

Rep. Robert Wittman, R-Va., ranking member of the House Armed Services seapower and projection force subcommittee, said in March the Virginia-class platform is one of the most requested assets in the U.S. military inventory, and gives the nation undersea superiority.

“We have got to be able to add that additional submarine back into budget and we are doing everything possible to see that happen,” he said during a speech at the McAleese & Associates Defense Programs Conference in Washington, D.C. “But to tell you that it’ll be a simple task would be underestimating” the difficulty.
— Additional reporting by Jon Harper

Topics: Navy News

Comments (0)

Retype the CAPTCHA code from the image
Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Please enter the text displayed in the image.