WASHINGTON: The Navy is finally getting the funding it has sought to push production of its next-generation Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine. But in a move that has raised some eyebrows, hundreds of millions of dollars for the program are not coming from the Navy budget, a situation that could become the new normal amid continuing budget uncertainty.
Navy leadership has said the Columbia program, which will include 12 nuclear-powered boats to replace the aging Ohio-class SSBNs currently in service, is one of their top priorities to stay ahead of Russian and Chinese sub-building booms, and grow the overall attack sub fleet from the current 52 to 66 by the 2040s.
But money is a major problem. With a host of expensive of modernization priorities like building multiple attacks submarines per year, getting the first four Ford-class carriers out of the shipyards, and buying more F-35s, the Navy is looking for help.
These programs are coming online under the shadow of the return of budget caps in 2020, which will force the service to make hard choices while bracing for future shipbuilding budgets that are likely to require more money than is currently planned.
In 2015, Congress was convinced to take the novel step of creating the National Sea-Based Deterrence Fund, establishing a pot of money controlled by the Secretary of Defense — and outside of the Navy’s budget — to help fund the Columbia program.
Over the past six months, the Pentagon has poured $831 million into that pot, with $231 million allocated just last month by Pentagon Comptroller David Norquist.
The money was approved by Congress in the March Omnibus which funded the Defense Department. It comes on top of the $3 billion requested in 2019 for initial Columbia procurement, along with $1.7 billion for nuclear propulsion components for the lead ship, and another $705 million for further research and development.
While some critics say the fund allows the Navy to skirt fiscal accountability by being able to reach into a separate account to help fund its boomers, the 2015 rule was the result of decades of work by the Navy and some lawmakers to convince Congress that the SSBNs are more like the nation’s ballistic missile defenses, and should be funded — at least in part — from a national account.
That argument received some backup in February in the Pentagon’s Nuclear Posture Review, which said the SSBN’s are a critical part of the U.S. strategic nuclear deterrent force, known as the triad, which also includes land-based Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) and long-range bombers like the B-2 and B-52. The report said the submarines are “the most survivable leg of the triad. When on patrol, SSBNs are, at present, virtually undetectable, and there are no known, near-term credible threats to the survivability of the SSBN force.”
If the boats are so important, however, the Navy should find a way to pay for it under normal budgetary processes, says Mackenzie Eaglen of the American Enterprise Institute. Mackenzie, a member of the Breaking Defense Board of Contributors, wrote […]