The chair of the House Armed Services Committee’s (HASC) seapower panel on Thursday said the FY ’18 shipbuilding authorization of $26.2 billion should be maintained before adding $3 billion when the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) starts production.

“I think even the Navy hasn’t been as direct as they need to be with the 30-year shipbuilding plan” because it provides spots the Congress can fill in additional ships the industrial base can sustain, Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.) said at a Hudson Institute event.

Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.), chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces
Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.), chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces

The Navy’s 30-year shipbuilding plan, released alongside its FY ’19 budget request, featured a chart that listed all expected acquisitions for maintaining and growing the fleet but included several spots as “available shipyard capacity for additional aggressive growth” (Defense Daily, Feb. 14).

Wittman said adding the extra ships “is sometimes easier said than done” and that the Navy should be clearer on what it actually needs.

“It has to be a situation where the Navy says that is what we need, this is when we’ll need them, these are the types of ships we need at these particular points.”

Wittman acknowledged a recent Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report that found increasing the Navy’s size to 355 ships within 20 years would cost $26.7 billion per year for new shipbuilding alone (Defense Daily, March 19).

“The Congressional Budget Office does point out the obligation that Congress has to make in order for us to get there. I think where we were last year with the authorization at $26.2 billion is where we need to be at a sustained level in order to get to 355 ships.”

However, once the Columbia-class Ohio-class replacement ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) moves to full scale production “then we’re going to have to hike up that number from $26.2 billion to probably at least, at least $3 billion more than that,” Wittman said.

He noted that is doable when on the proper timeline and scale to make sure the Navy does advanced procurement (AP) and economics order quantity (EOQ) “to make sure that it’s a sustainment ramp to get there.”

However, Wittman said that means the shipbuilding budget needs to ramp up for this in FY ’20 and ’21.

The true challenge in where CBO’s concerns, although not related to what we face, still do reflect upon the challenge ahead is that the sequester comes back in 2020.”

Fiscal years 2020 and 2021 will be “the real critical segue to that sustained path to 355. I think that’s where we’re going to have to do everything we can to say that if we’re going to enjoy economies of scale and construction, if we’re going to be able to bring down the cost per unit to maintain serial production, to maintain industrial base capacity, you have to sustain at that level.”

Wittman actually argued for incrementally increasing the shipbuilding budget over $26.2 billion in those years.

“That’s where I think our biggest challenge rests, in where do we go with that budgeting deal there for the topline defense number and within that, how do we get to the right glide slope to 355?”

The chairman also shed some light on negotiations between the Armed Services and Appropriations Committees to align Navy shipbuilding.

An artist's rendering of the U.S. Navy's future Columbia-class submarine. (Navy photo)
An artist’s rendering of the U.S. Navy’s future Columbia-class submarine. (Navy photo)

Wittman noted HASC authorized $26.2 billion for 13 warships in FY ’18 and then the appropriators set it at $23.8 billion for what they called 14 ships, although only 10 of those appropriated were actually warships.

On that FY ’19 funding, “I felt we were pretty successful in getting what was in the NDAA into the appropriations side. There are a couple places where we lack, [and] had some very good discussions with appropriators to make sure that this year that the authorization is aligned with the appropriation,” he said.

“So this year we’ve been pretty adamant to say it’s 13 warships. We’ll end up somewhere probably between $24.5 billion and maybe $24.75 billion dollars, somewhere in that range, maybe even a little bit more than that.”

Wittman highlighted that he has been “very engaged with the appropriators to make sure that that’s reflected in what happens on the appropriations side and that’s where we ultimately end up budgeting to.”

However, the topline numbers for FY ‘19 are less of a problem thanks to the budget deal raising defense caps earlier this year, Wittman said. That deal raises defense caps by $80 billion in FY ’18 and $85 billion in FY ’19 (Defense Daily, Feb. 7).

Relatedly, Wittman said he is confident the 2016 Force Structure Assessment (FSA) points the Navy in the right direction but added the service will complete another FSA by the end of this year. He said starting with the next FSA the Navy and Congress will need to better define how to integrate new ship system elements like new weapon systems, unmanned systems, artificial intelligence, and hypersonic systems to further expand naval capabilities.