If the Navy is permitted to fund its ballistic missile submarine through a special fund, lawmakers should consider a similar mechanism for modernizing the Air Force’s legs of the nuclear triad, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said Wednesday.

Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine USS Louisiana (SSBN 743). Photo: U.S. Navy

Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine USS Louisiana (SSBN 743). Photo: U.S. Navy

Over the next decade, the Navy and Air Force are slated to start programs of record for all three legs of the nuclear triad: the B-21 Long Range Strike Bomber that will replace the B-52, the Ohio replacement submarine and the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) that will supersede the Minuteman III ICBMs.

Congress is considering using a separate Defense Department-wide account, the National Sea-Based Deterrence Fund (NSBDF), to save up funding for the Navy’s purchase of the Ohio replacement without straining the service’s shipbuilding account. However, with a modernization bow wave approaching that includes procurement of the F-35, KC-46A tanker, B-21 bomber and GBSD, the Air Force also would benefit from a similar fund, James said.

“I’m not fully familiar with the strategic deterrence fund that you all have referenced here, but if that is a strategic deterrence fund that would help or benefit one leg of the triad, I would ask for consideration that all legs of the triad be included in such an approach,” she said during a House Armed Services Committee.

The House has widely been supportive of the NSBDF since it was created in the 2015 defense authorization bill, and a measure last year that would have prohibited the transfer of funds into the account was defeated in a 321-111 vote (Defense Daily, June 11). But the congressional appropriations committees and the Senate at large have voiced reservations about using the fund, arguing it would give less visibility into the program and could turn into a slush fund.

During a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the Navy budget held Tuesday, SASC Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) said he had not been convinced the Ohio replacement should be funded through the NSBDF, arguing it may open the door for other services to bankroll their programs through similar tools.

“I’m not sure every new weapons system then wouldn’t warrant the same kind of special treatment, and then that’s the dilemma here,” McCain said.

Navy officials have contended that there’s precedence for a fund like the NSBDF. In the 1990s, Congress established the national defense sealift fund to pay for auxiliary ships like oilers.

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson in the HASC hearing reiterated another argument in favor of the NSBSD: Economic order authorities allowed in the fund would let the Navy slash the procurement cost of each of the 12 Ohio-replacement boomers, which are slated to begin construction in 2021.

“You can save on the order of 10 or more percent across the program, which is essentially getting one submarine for free,” he said.

After the hearing, HASC Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) said the services will need support from Congress to fund the modernization of all three legs of the nuclear triad, but fell short of saying the Air Force needs a separate fund for the B-21 or GBSD.

“The bomber is dual mission, so what portion of the bomber cost do you put in that? That’s a little bit harder to figure out,” he said.

But ultimately, it’s unlikely that Congress will approve paying for GBSD or B-21 through a separate fund like the NSBDF, said Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense analyst at the American Enterprise Institute.

“The Air Force pushing to get in on the fund—which is legitimate given their two legs of the triad and worse acquisition bow wave outlook in the 2020s than the Navy—will simply overload the demand and cause the concept to collapse under its own weight,” she said in a statement to Defense Daily. “Or, appropriators and Pentagon leaders never warm to it because they know it’s simply robbing Peter to pay Paul and seek instead a higher overall defense topline.”

Even if the fund fails, the Navy has made its case effectively and gotten much of Congress onboard with using a separate account for funding the Ohio replacement, she said. “This is the necessary first step to ensuring any additional funds are siphoned for the Navy first—even if they don’t actually go into a NSBDF.”