House passes $675B defense spending bill without money for extra subs

The U.S. Navy Virginia-class attack submarine USS California (SSN 781) is rotated with the help of the Thames Towboat Co. tug Paul A. Wronowski in the Thames River off General Dynamics Electric Boat on Oct. 31, 2017. The $675 billion defense spending bill that the U.S. House overwhelmingly passed on Thursday, June 28, 2018, does not include a $1 billion down payment to add extra attack submarines in the years 2022 and 2023.  (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
The U.S. Navy Virginia-class attack submarine USS California (SSN 781) is rotated with the help of the Thames Towboat Co. tug Paul A. Wronowski in the Thames River off General Dynamics Electric Boat on Oct. 31, 2017. The $675 billion defense spending bill that the U.S. House overwhelmingly passed on Thursday, June 28, 2018, does not include a $1 billion down payment to add extra attack submarines in the years 2022 and 2023. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

The $675 billion defense spending bill that the U.S. House overwhelmingly passed on Thursday does not include a $1 billion down payment to add extra attack submarines in fiscal years 2022 and 2023. The vote was 359-49, with all but three Republicans voting in favor of the measure.

The Pentagon, ahead of the House vote, opposed the $1 billion in submarine funding, which was requested by U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, and his Republican colleague Rob Wittman of Virginia, who lead the House Armed Services Seapower Subcommittee, which has oversight of Navy shipbuilding. The proposal, which was taken up before the House voted on the full bill, failed by a vote of 267-144.

"There's no question that had a depressing effect," Courtney said by phone Thursday afternoon after the vote, referring to the Pentagon's opposition.

House lawmakers missed an "opportunity window" to leverage industrial base capacity and respond to a dip in the size of the attack submarine fleet, he added.

The "good news" Courtney said, is that "we didn't go backwards or have to defend" funding for existing submarine programs. "This would've been all new activity," he said.

The bill allots $10 billion for submarine programs, which supports the current pace of submarine construction and design activity happening in Connecticut and other states like Virginia and Rhode Island. Of that, $7 billion would go toward the Virginia-class attack submarine program, and $3 billion would be appropriated for the Columbia-class program, a new fleet of ballistic missile submarines.

On top of that, Courtney and Wittman wanted to spend another $1 billion in advanced procurement funding for the Virginia-class submarine program. The lawmakers viewed the extra money as a signal to the Navy to have a third submarine built in both 2022 and 2023, which the Navy has indicated there is capacity to do.

The Navy has set a goal of 66 attack submarines compared to the 52 it has now. These submarines are built at a rate of two per year by Electric Boat and Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia. If the current two-per-year build rate continues, the Navy won't reach its 66 attack submarine goal until the 2040s, according to Courtney. That's because the Navy is retiring the older attack submarines at a faster rate than the newer ones are being built.

To pay for the extra submarines, Courtney and Wittman proposed shifting funds from programs such as the Navy's DDG-51 Guided Missile Destroyer and the Air Force's Global Hawk drone. Those offsets were included as part of the defense authorization bill, the companion legislation to the defense spending bill, passed by the House in late May.

The Pentagon's second in charge outlined opposition to the $1 billion advanced payment in a letter Tuesday to Republican Rep. Kay Graner, chairwoman of the House defense appropriations subcommittee, saying it could lead to an additional $6 billion over time and that would mean the Pentagon would have to tap into budgets for other defense programs. Courtney described that estimate as "total speculation."

Aerospace contractors also pushed back against the submarine funding proposal, even though "we did not cut a single plane," Courtney said.

He still is hopeful that since House and Senate lawmakers have authorized the additional submarines to be built, that will be enough to convince submarine contract negotiators to add the extra boats despite no additional funding being appropriated at this point. The Navy currently is negotiating the contract for the next group of attack submarines it wants built from 2019 to 2023.

Also on Thursday, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved the Senate's version of the defense spending bill. The full Senate next will take it up. Any differences between the Senate and House versions will have to be reconciled in negotiations between select lawmakers before being merged into a final bill.

The bill passed out of the Senate Appropriations Committee included an additional $250 million in advanced procurement funding that could be used for the addition of a third submarine in both 2022 and 2023 or to expand the submarine industrial base to support a planned uptick in production.

j.bergman@theday.com

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