Virginia Congressman Rob Wittman is the chairman of the Subcommittee on Readiness of the House Armed Services Committee and he was my guest today, calling in from the House cloakroom as the debate on the Defense Appropriations bill churned into the early hours of the evening.
Listeners to my show know that I regularly ask GOP presidential candidates for their commitment to timely and fully funded replacement submarines for our Ohio class fleet that carry one third off our nuclear deterrent. Chairman Wittman is particularly conversant with this subject, and we went into the deep details on this one:
HH: Rob Wittman is now joining us. Congressman, great to have you back, how are you?
RW: Hugh, it’s great to be with you. I apologize about being late, but we’re off and on the floor here with some amendments on the Defense Appropriations Act, so I was just talking about Gitmo detainees and getting ready to go back on the floor and talk about our ballistic missile submarines. But it’s great to be with you.
HH: Well then, this is really breaking news. Are we going to get the funding we need for the ballistic missile submarine, Ohio-Class replacement?
RW: Well you know, that’s exactly what we’re going to the floor to, Congressman Randy Forbes, myself and Congressman Courtney are going there to argue against the language that’s in the proposed appropriations act that would take money out of this sea-based deterrence fund, which is the money specifically for the Ohio-Class submarine. And they want to try to fund it through the shipbuilding fund, which only has about $16 billion dollars in it. These ships are going to be about $7 billion dollars a copy, so if you do that, you’re going to take money away from other ships, which we believe strongly we need to be building more ships, not fewer, not taking money away, but actually putting money in. This national sea-based deterrence fund is the way we believe to fund the Ohio-Class replacement. It was the way the Ohio-Class submarines were funded to begin with. So we’re fighting to make sure that language stays in there.
HH: Well, I wish I had known that when Chairman Ryan was on. I would have gotten him on the record. Do you think you’re going to win the vote to keep the Sea-Based Deterrence Fund going?
RW: I do. I think we’re going to make a very cogent argument. As you know, there was an earlier amendment in the National Defense Authorization Act that would have done something similar to this, and it was defeated overwhelmingly. So we believe we’ll have the same support here. This will be voted on a little bit later this evening. Both Congressman Forbes, myself and Congressman Courtney will be standing at the door as members coming in, urging them to vote yes on our amendment to make sure that we have this money in the National Sea-based Deterrence Fund to build the Ohio-Class replacement submarine.
HH: Now Congressman Wittman, people on this show hear me ask every presidential candidate whether they’re committed to coming up with an Ohio-Class replacement. I hope they know why it matters, but why don’t you, you’re the expert, you’re chairman of the Sea Power Subcommittee. Why do we need a replacement for the Ohio-Class? It’s not like a ship that you can extend, and it’s a ship we cannot be without, and it’s an expensive ship. Can you explain all that stuff?
RW: That’s exactly right, Hugh. This is the ship that deploys our nuclear missiles as part of our nuclear triad. So the reason our submarines are so important is that the other nations don’t know exactly where they are. They don’t know how many missiles we have deployed on those submarines at any one time, so they don’t know what we can do if they were to launch a nuclear strike against the United States. So it is indeed a deterrent for them to do anything in that realm. We must have the replacement for those submarines. The Ohio-Class submarines have been extended in their service life. They will start to be retired in the 2020’s. We have to have a replacement for that submarine to make sure we have that enduring presence at sea, have at least 12 ballistic missile submarines to put those nuclear missiles in places where our adversaries don’t know where they are, but know that if they were to launch an attack against us, there’d be return missiles coming back to them from undisclosed locations around the world. That, I believe, is the most important part of our nuclear triad. You know, we have strategic bombers that are in the air, and our land-based missiles that can launch. The place where our adversaries know the least about where our missiles will come from is those sea-based missiles on board our ballistic missile submarines.
HH: Now Congressman Wittman, we built 18 Ohio. We transformed four of those into cruise missile platforms. So there really are only 14 carrying the missiles.
RW: That’s correct.
HH: Now you’re proposing to take it down to 12. Is 12 enough?
RW: Well, we believe that we need to have more. We’d like to see us, you know, have a fleet of 14. Now the question is, is the capability of these new submarines, they are going to be very, very capable submarines, but we have to start the replacement process immediately, because if not, in fact, we’re still in position right now, Hugh, that we could have a gap between having to retire the existing Ohio-Class submarine and the availability of a new submarine, which means we could go down as low as existing submarine class, 13 or 12, which we know with the existing submarines is not where we need to be. So it is critical that we stay on track, I argue actually move this program to the left, or have it occur sooner that what it’s slated right now in order to make sure we have those submarines available.
HH: You know, I’ve got Chapter 45 in my new book, Congressman Wittman, is simply titled The Nukes, and it’s advice to Hillary Clinton. I think she should put her arms around this program. I think any Democrat who doesn’t is out of their minds. Do you have any bipartisan support for replacing the Ohio-Class with a separate fund, because again, if you build it out of the shipbuilding fund, we won’t build another ship. It’ll take all the money.
RW: That’s exactly right, Hugh. Today, as we speak, there is just a little less than $16 billion dollars in the shipbuilding fund. These ships are going to be $7 billion dollars a copy, so you will stop building other ships, whether it’s aircraft carriers, submarines, destroyers or attack submarines or destroyers, or amphibian ships. You cannot build the ships that we need. The Sea-Based Deterrence Fund lets us build them separately. We have bipartisan support to do it that way. What we’re concerned about is if they try to fund it out of shipbuilding, they’ll try to make the Navy find money elsewhere to fund this program. That’s is a big, big dollar chunk to come up with. They won’t find it elsewhere. So what’ll happen is that other ship programs will either get extended, or I think in some instances, may not even be built. And we’re lacking amphibious lift capabilities. We want to make sure we stay on track with the bloc build for our destroyers, which are doing extraordinarily well. The bloc buy, which is ten submarines for our attack-class Virginia submarines, as well as building more amphibious ships so we have amphibious lift capabilities. Those are critical elements of what we must do in order to make this happen.
HH: Well you and your colleagues are fighting the most important legislative battle of the next 40 years tonight, because this is a 40 year program, and it will protect us for 40 years. On the Democratic side in the Senate, they say they’re going to block the entire Appropriations process. What are they thinking?
RW: Well, I’ll tell you, they certainly aren’t thinking about the interests of our nation. We all have a Constitutional responsibility here to make sure we stand by Article I, Section 8, that is to provide for this nation’s defense. We cannot do that by bringing in other issues of budgeting. I understand if they want to argue about spending more, but you can’t say that you’re going to hold Defense spending hostage in order to accomplish other means. I hope there are enough people in the Senate that will stand by their Constitutional responsibility to pass a National Defense Authorization Act, separate them from the debate on spending, and also appropriate the necessary dollars to allow the NDAA to go into effect. That is their responsibility. It’s all of our responsibility. Don’t hold it hostage to other spending issues.
HH: Now tonight is the authorization act? Or is it the appropriations act?
RW: Tonight is the appropriations act here in the House.
RW: So we are debating the Appropriations Act, going through the amendment process right now. When we finish the amendment process, the full bill will come up to the floor for a vote.
HH: And are you authorizing, is anyone plussing up any of the accounts? Are they adding more money? Or are you sticking within the Price budget?
RW: Well, I think there will be a number of amendments to plus up in certain areas. And there are also other amendments to take money out and putting it in other areas. So there will be a debate about what the priorities are within the Appropriations Bill.
HH: Late night for you, Congressman?
RW: Yeah, very late night tonight, and maybe even tomorrow. So our amendment is coming up right now on the floor, so we are…
HH: And I’ll let you go.
RW: …to jump in there and get after it.
HH: Go work with your naval aide and your legislative aide, Congressman Wittman, have a good night, good success to you, keep this next generation of nuclear sub alive, great to talk to you.
RW: Hugh, we will do that. We’re going to go to the floor right now and argue to make sure we keep that Sea-based Deterrence Fund to make sure we have that Ohio-Class replacement when we need it.
HH: Thank you much.
End of interview.