More subs if Trump signs $700B defense bill, but funding uncertain

The hull of the Virginia-class attack submarine South Dakota (SSN 790) under construction at General Dynamics Electric Boat in Groton on Nov. 17, 2016. A $700 billion defense bill that includes funding for several submarine programs has passed both the House and Senate and awaits President Donald Trump's signature.  (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
The hull of the Virginia-class attack submarine South Dakota (SSN 790) under construction at General Dynamics Electric Boat in Groton on Nov. 17, 2016. A $700 billion defense bill that includes funding for several submarine programs has passed both the House and Senate and awaits President Donald Trump's signature. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

Awaiting President Donald Trump's signature is a bill authorizing a $700 billion budget for the military, including billions for Connecticut's submarine industrial base and more attack submarines.

The House overwhelmingly passed the bill on Tuesday by a vote of 356 to 70. The Senate passed the measure in a quick voice vote Thursday.

In remarks on the House floor earlier this week, U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, said the bill was a result of a "very bipartisan effort, and the result I think really demonstrates that when you do it that way, you get good results."

"The result is significantly more sources for airpower and submarines, both highly important to our nation and Connecticut," U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said in a statement after the Senate's passage.

Both Courtney and Blumenthal were part of a conference committee of lawmakers who worked out differences between the Senate's and House's versions of the bill to reach the $700 billion deal.

Trump has called for a bigger military budget but this exceeds what he asked for, and is about $85 billion above what the law allows for fiscal year 2018. Military officials have argued that budget uncertainty as a result of temporary funding measures known as continuing resolutions has hampered their operations and readiness. The $700 billion defense authorization bill is a statement from Congress that it wants to change that.

Still, Republican and Democratic leadership have not agreed on how to pay for the measure. A 2011 budget law stipulates a $549 billion cap on defense spending and a $516 billion cap on nondefense spending for fiscal year 2018. If lawmakers don't reach a compromise, there could be across-the-board cuts. Government funding runs out on Dec. 8.

The bill, if passed, would be good news for Connecticut's defense industry.

It authorizes nearly $8 billion for submarine programs. Electric Boat has been building two Virginia-class attack submarines for several years now under a teaming agreement with Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia. EB is also the prime contractor for the Columbia-class program, a new fleet of 12 ballistic missile submarines to replace the current fleet of so-called boomers, which entered service in the 1980s. Nearly $6 billion was authorized for the Virginia program, and nearly $2 billion was authorized for the Columbia program.

Under the bill, the Navy would be able to enter into a contract for 13 Virginia-class submarines, as opposed to 10, which is the number of submarines included in recent blocks. The Navy buys submarines in blocks, and the contract for the next block of Virginia submarines is being negotiated. The increase in attack submarine production would mean a three-a-year build rate of Virginia submarines in 2020, 2022 and 2023.

There's also a provision in the bill that would require the Navy to come up with a plan to mitigate the submarine maintenance backlog. The USS Boise, which has sat pierside in Virginia since May 31, 2016, has been painted as the worst-case scenario of what happens when maintenance gets deferred.

Another provision would help alleviate a backlog of federal background investigations affecting EB and other defense contractors by removing the Office of Personnel Management from all clearance investigations carried out by the Department of Defense. It also would give the secretary of defense the authority to conduct background investigations for all the department's clearances.

The bill denies a round of base closings and consolidations in 2021, which the Trump administration requested. The Naval Submarine Base was on the list for closing most recently in 2005, and was narrowly saved.

j.bergman@theday.com

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