Hugh Lessig, Newport News Daily Press, Apr 7
On the surface, the Navy's new 30-year shipbuilding plan looks like smooth sailing for Huntington Ingalls Industries and other shipyards that contribute to the U.S. fleet.
In a perfect world, the Navy would purchase a Ford-class aircraft carrier every five years up to 2043, providing job security for HII's Newport News Shipbuilding division.
Production of Virginia class submarines, which Newport News builds in partnership with General Dynamics Electric Boat, would also remain steady in the coming decades.
And to help maintain work flow at HII's shipyard in Pascagoula, Miss., the Navy would buy a 12th and final San Antonio class amphibious warship.
But the Navy's long-range plan is just that – a plan. Paying for it is another matter. Supporters of a robust Navy fleet begin to worry when they compare the plan's cost with what Congress traditionally spends.
The plan, which the Defense Department submitted to Congress last week, "highlights troubling issues for the future of our nation and our global leadership that need to be addressed," according to a release Tuesday from "America's Strength," an advertising campaign of the Navy League of the United States.
Earlier this week, Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Chesapeake, weighed in with similar sentiments.
"It is obvious that the Navy still isn't getting the resources it needs to secure our interests as a maritime nation," said Forbes, whose position on the House Armed Services Committee makes him influential on shipbuilding issues.
The plan admits as much. It envisions a fleet of 308 Navy ships, described in detail with two data tables. But turning that data into gray Navy steel "requires funding that exceeds levels the Navy has historically been able to commit to new ship construction."
"In that sense," the report says, "these tables are a best case scenario."
A bad scenario can happen one of two ways, the report notes.
First, the Navy would absorb a 10-percent financial hit if Congress does not reverse across-the-board, automatic budget cuts scheduled to take effect later this year.
"The shortage of funding could potentially reverse the Navy's progress towards recapitalizing a 308 ship battle force and could damage an already fragile shipbuilding industry," the report states.
But even if the Navy dodges a 10-percent hit, the plan still faces trouble.
The Navy's top priority for the immediate future is building a new class of ballistic missile submarine – boats that carry nuclear warheads – to replace its fleet of aging Ohio-class subs. The Navy wants to buy that first sub in 2021, the second in 2024 and build one per year from 2026 to 2035.
If the shipbuilding budget stays at historic levels, the Ohio-class replacement project would eat up half of the available shipbuilding budget each year, "and would do so for a period of over a decade," the report states.
It could force the Navy to make significant trade-offs. The Navy is required by law to maintain 11 aircraft carriers. To meet that requirement and build one new ballistic missile sub per year starting in 2026, the Navy could build as few as two other ships through the 2020s, potentially affecting production of attack submarines, amphibious warships, destroyers or other vessels.
The report says such a low production rate would pose "significant risk to the industrial base" and "could result in shipyard closures."
Many members of Congress have talked about reversing the budget cuts, known as sequestration, but a plan has not yet emerged. However, there is a potential solution to overcome the funding the Ohio-class replacement boats.
At the insistence of Forbes and others, Congress has authorized a separate fund to pay for these new submarines outside of the Navy's shipbuilding budget. Supporters say ballistic missile submarines are a national asset, not just a Navy program, and should be funded by the Defense Department.
Congress has created the National Sea Based Deterrence Fund for this purpose, but it doesn't yet have a dedicated source of money.
The idea has its critics. The group Taxpayers for Common Sense said last year that the fund won't reduce the cost of the submarine or the defense spending in general.
"All it does is temporarily relieve the pressure on the Navy's budget," Ryan Alexander, who heads the group, wrote in an op-ed.
Others, like Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Westmoreland, say the fund is a must, or the new submarine would be a budget buster.
"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 in January.