Courtney: Ohio-class submarine replacement program going as planned
A separate fund - outside of the Navy's shipbuilding budget - that would support the Navy's new nuclear missile submarines is expected to receive the green light when the president signs the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act into law, which is expected to occur in the coming days.
Despite some confusion in media reports about the failure to fund the National Sea Based Deterrence Fund within this year's federal defense spending bill, the separate account will be created as a result of the passage of the NDAA with the goal of establishing the account in law, not to fund it immediately.
The fund would support the Ohio-class replacement program (ORP), which replaces the aging Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines with new nuclear missile submarines, and calls for the construction of 12 boats over a 15-year procurement period between 2021 and 2035.
For at least four years now, U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, and other members of the House Armed Services Seapower and Projections Subcommittee, have talked about establishing this separate fund to relieve constraints on the regular shipbuilding account.
The account, which is projected to be about $17 billion a year in today's dollars, Courtney said, "is going to have its hands full" paying for a new class of surface ships, destroyers, aircraft carriers, and two Virginia-class attack submarines a year, among other programs.
"If you add ORP into the mix … it's just going to squeeze out a huge portion of the shipbuilding plan that the Navy has put together over the next 30 years," Courtney said. He authored the provision in the NDAA that creates the fund.
The Navy estimates that the cost per ORP boat is about $6.6 billion. But the Congressional Budget Office released its own, higher estimate of $7.7 billion.
The NDAA sets up the separate account, which would be administered by the secretary of defense, and allows the Department of Defense to transfer up to $3.5 billion of unused funds into the account to get it started. Courtney compared the process to "opening up a bank account to establish some down payment in terms of this program." He added that over the full design and construction process, it's about a $70 billion program.
The ORP boats "are going to be out there for 40 years. It's a once-in-a-multigenerational expenditure," Courtney said. "They need to approach it differently than the regular shipbuilding platforms like littoral combat ships or destroyers that have to be replaced on a much more frequent basis."
Currently, the Navy has about 280 ships within its fleet, Courtney said. "If you want to preserve the goal of getting to 300 ships … we'll never get there if we have to pay for ORP out of the regular shipbuilding account; in fact we'll go lower."
In terms of the preliminary design and engineering piece of the Ohio-class program, Courtney said, "that is being funded by the NDAA and final budget at the right level."
While the federal spending bill doesn't include any funding for the separate account, it does fully fund the budget request of about $1.3 billion to continue research and development of the Ohio-class program.
Work is already underway on the design and engineering side of the program. As of Monday, the job openings at EB stood at about 300, heavily weighted to the design and engineering side to support work on the ORP and the Virginia Payload Module program, according to Courtney.
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