HH: Joined by Congressman Rob Wittman. You can follow him on Twitter, @RobWittman. There are two T’s, M-A-N, Rob Wittman. He is from Virginia’s 1st Congressional District. He is also the chairman of the Sea Power and Projection Forces Subcommittee of the Armed Services Committee in the House. Congressman Wittman, Happy New Year, great to have you. I feel real good, I just sound pretty bad.
RW: Well, Hugh, it’s great to be with you, and I wish you all the best and hopefully getting your voice back to where it needs to be.
HH: Well, I’ll let you do the talk, because I wanted you on as the chairman of the Sea Power and Projection Forces Subcommittee. You know that the President-Elect promised a United States Navy of 350 ships. I’ve just finished a book, The Fourth Way, which has four different plans in there on how to get it. I got an email from inside the building yesterday. You’ll appreciate that since the election, the CNO has put together a 350 ship plan, a team to get it done, and they brought the shipbuilders in, because it’s pretty hard to get to 350. They’re working on it. How do you think we do it, Congressman?
RW: Well, I think it can be done, and the good thing is the vision from the administration of 350 ships, Hugh, and the most recent force structure assessment from the Navy that came out in December also projects about the same number, 355 ships. As you said, the key is how do we get there. I do think we can get there. At the minimum, Hugh, I think what we have to do is to be able to authorize and then fund at least $5 billion additional dollars each year in the shipbuilding budget. Now remember, one of the great thresholds we crossed last year to uncomplicate things was to find a mechanism to fund the new Ohio Class replacement class of submarines now called the Columbia Class. That is going to be about a $4.7 to 4.8 billion dollars per boat project to build those ballistic missile submarines, those large submarines. And the concern was, is at that cost per boat, putting that in the shipbuilding budget, would really keep us from building other classes of ships. So the pieces of this are starting to come together. We’ve got the mechanism separate from the shipbuilding budget to build those Ohio Class replacement submarines. Now, we’ve got to be able to get that $5 billion additional dollars, at least. What I believe we need to do, and what my subcommittee will be focused on, is asking the tough questions about how do we get there, and not just how do we get there, but what ships do we need within that 355 ship Navy to do the things we need to do? How many of those boats should be attack submarines? How many amphibious ships do we need? How many aircraft carriers do we need? I think we need to go from 11 to 12. I do believe we need additional attack submarines, additional amphibious lift. All those are things we’re going to ask. And then, Hugh, the most critical element is how quickly can we get there. I think the industrial base has the capacity to get there. The question is, is what resources can Congress devote to that to get us there? And do we do that over a 30 year period? Do we do it over 25 years? Do we do it over 20 years? And another important element of that is making sure we do everything we can to take care of and maintain the ships we have, because if we don’t, and we’ve seen this in the past, if those ships wear out more quickly than what they have been planned to serve the nation, then we don’t get to 355, because we’re retiring ships faster than we’re building them. So all the pieces of this puzzle have to come together. And it’s going to be our job on the Sea Power Subcommittee in the weeks to come is to ask these tough questions, to lay things out, to bring the Navy in, the Congressional Research Service, the industry in, look at how do we get there, and how do we make sure we put in place a realistic plan that puts in milestones, and that we can achieve to be able to make progress to get to 355.
HH: Now what I wanted to do in the new book, Congressman, was to tell people that it’s not impossible. And so I put four plans in. I didn’t pick between them. But one of them, for example, is an 11 carrier, 100 large combatants, 32 small combatants, 47 attack submarines, four cruise missile submarines, 14 new Columbia Class replacements for the Ohio, 34 amphibious assault ships, etc., etc. There are different plans. What I need, I think we need, is to lock and load on one so that the American people can understand if we’re making our benchmarks, where they’re getting built, where the shipyards need to be. Is that part of your design, is to get to an agreed framework that everyone can sign off on and say this is our ship mix, this is what we’re doing?
RW: It is. It is, Hugh. We have to have that certainty there. And as you know, we are in the advantageous position of in most of these situations, short of Columbia Class, all those are existing production lines. They are underway. They are hot production lines. The designs on these ships are mature, even with what we’re doing in transitioning from an LPD hull to the LXR Class. All those things, we have figured out. We’re doing a fantastic job in building the Virginia Attack Class submarines. The next step is the Virginia Payload Module, which replaces the SSGN submarines. So we are at a perfect place to be able to do that. It’s not as though we’re experimenting and starting new ship classes. We are where we need to be. I think what the Navy lays out, the Navy says hey, listen, with the demand signal we’re getting from the combatant commands, we’re going to need more attack submarines. I think their number is pretty close to right. We’re going to need more amphibious lift. We’re going to need another aircraft carrier to anchor an aircraft strike group, aircraft carrier strike group. I think what the Navy lays out is pretty close. What I want to do is to be able to get folks in to get, as you pointed out, different perspectives, and then for us to be able to project through the National Defense Authorization Act, hey, this is the path that we believe we ought to be pursuing. And how do we lay that out, at least, and where we started this year, how does that fit into the five year Defense plan better known as the Fit Up, so we can do those things immediately. But then how is that going to be reflected in where we go after that? And then what’s the Navy going to say needs to be in the 30 year shipbuilding plan, which has always kind of been disconnected from reality? We’ve got to make sure that strategy is driving budget. And as you know, Hugh, in the past ten years plus, it’s been budget driving strategy. I am excited about us being at a point where I finally believe that we’re going to have the true strategy that’s needed, and then let us have the budget debate about how do we get there, and what can we do, and how do we make those priority decisions?
HH: Now one of the my experts is retired Marine Corps General Mel Spiese, two stars. I asked him for an assessment of the Corps, and he gave it to me. It’s in The Fourth Way. People can read it. One of the things he talked about was to accelerate and prioritize the funding and the fielding of the F35B. As you know, the President-Elect’s gotten a little conversation underway about the F-18 Super Predator and the F-35, the various kinds. How quickly does that have to resolve, in your view, Congressman Wittman?
RW: Well, it has to resolve pretty quickly. In fact, I think we’ve already laid out the path for the F-35. I think we’ve made our choice there. Certainly, the F-35 C coming on board, the Navy variant, to be able to get that on board the decks of the aircraft carrier, and with Ford coming on, you know, our aircraft carriers are great, but they’re not much without aircraft, so there is a gap we have to bridge there. The question is do we buy more F-18’s to do that? Can we accelerate F-35? We did make the commitment to buy a few more F-18’s, but the F-35, Hugh, is our fifth generation aircraft. And you know, having been through the secure briefings, looking at what the F-18 can do, even the 4.5 variant, the halfway between the fourth and fifth generation aircraft, we’re still well short of what we face with our adversaries. So we have to be all in with the F-35, even with the hiccups that we’ve been through.
HH: Then let me ask you about the move forward with the President-Elect getting to 350. He needs to get everyone in the room. They need to agree. If it gets into an NDAA, when do you see that passing, Congressman? When do we get the map, the roadmap forward?
RW: Well, Hugh, we have to make sure we get NDAA done on its normal time path, which will mean you know, last year we did it a little bit earlier, which means we got the ball rolling there in April. I think we need to do the same thing this year. As you know, the incoming administration has said already that their budget coming to the Hill is going to be a little bit late. It’s even more important for us to lay that out. One of the things that’s happening that we’re trying to get ahead and kind of push the discussion, and that is Chairman Thornberry and Chairman McCain are putting out a document for FY’18 saying this is what things look like, and we believe that the base budget for Defense needs to go to $640 billion dollars. And we would like to do that and lay out where do those dollars need to go to rebuild readiness, to get to a 350 ship Navy, to kind of lay out the way we believe that we can do the things that in the incoming administration has laid out, to get out in front of the curve, to try to make sure that the dialogue that we’re having guides the president and the folks there in his administration on where at least the Defense portion of the President’s budget needs to go.
HH: And a last question, Congressman Wittman, you were talking about running for governor. What are your plans? Right now is the golden age of shipbuilding, the best shipbuilding moment since the Reagan buildup. Are you leaving the chairman of the key subcommittee to run for governor now?
RW: No, I’m not, Hugh. You know, it was a tough, tough decision, and I had to look at where I could best serve Virginia. And I told folks my plans hadn’t changed, but boy, the world around me did. So at this particular point, I’ve said no, not now. It’s not no long term, but it’s no, not now. The best place for me to serve is here in Washington having an administration being able to do the things to rebuild this Navy. That’s the way I can best serve the nation, the way I can best serve the Commonwealth of Virginia, and we’ll see what the future holds. But my 100% focus is here in Washington getting the job done, making sure that we have the Navy of the future, and making sure we have a Department of Defense that’s capable of getting out there and deterring the threats around the world, and if necessary, when necessary, be able to project power, and make sure that the United States is in the military position it needs to be in.
HH: Well, when I heard Rex Tillerson talking about confronting China in the South China Sea, I thought of Rob Wittman. The assets have got to be there. That’s your job, Mr. Chairman. Great to have you back. We’ll talk early and often in ’17, especially as the voice improves.
End of interview.