Virginia’s Rob Wittman, who represents the Commonwealth’s 1st CD, is Chairman of the Subcommittee on Seapower and Proejection of the House Armed Services Committee as well as co-chair of the Congressional Shipbuilidng Caucus. Very few people on the Hill are as knowledgeable about the Navy’s needs, both immediate and longer term, than Congressman Wittman. Spread the link to this transcript around to your own congressmen and senators and ask them to get a clue in a hurry about funding our Navy as it needs to be funded:
HH: This segment and next, I’m talking with Congressman Rob Wittman of Virginia’s 1st Congressional District. He is the Chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Sea Power and Readiness. He’s also co-chairman of the Shipbuilding Caucus in the House. He’s the Chairman of the United States Naval Academy Board of Visitors. He knows his Navy. And Rob Wittman, welcome back, it’s good to have you, Congressman.
RW: Hugh, it’s great to be back with you. Thanks for the opportunity.
HH: Well, I was moved to call you this morning, because the New York Times has a very long and interesting story on the modernization of our nuclear deterrent, and tucked into that is a couple of paragraphs, the main job of one of the facilities is extending the life of a nearly 40 year old submarine warhead called the W-76. And I got to researching, I was in a shipbuilding facility last week, and got to learn that our Ohio class submarines start to run out of shelf life pretty soon. And you’re the chairman of the Shipbuilding Caucus. We’ve got to get very serious about replenishing our seaborne deterrent, don’t we?
RW: We do absolutely. In fact, it’s a very timely issue, Hugh. We had Admiral Richardson before the Shipbuilding Caucus just this past week to talk specifically about Ohio class replacement, how we’re coming along with the design on the next generation nuclear submarine, the SSBN-(X) as it’s termed, to determine where are we with schedule of design. My concern is this, Hugh. I still believe that we are going to be short of the time when the Ohio class submarines are retired, and when the new SSBN-(X) class of submarine is available. That will mean that we will have fewer submarines than what I believe we need to provide the necessary nuclear deterrent, which concerns me deeply. And these submarines, by the time they’re built, are going to be about $6 billion dollars a copy. So it’s not like you’re going to make that money up or make that time up if we don’t do something now. Now this year, in the National Defense Authorization Act, we put a place in the budget to specifically fund these submarines. Now the next step is to put money in it. And that’s going to be the key, I believe, next year, if we don’t properly fund the design and development phase of this so that we get the design complete, or mostly complete before we go to the yard, then this submarine could be delayed. And I can tell you if it’s delayed any more than what it’s already been delayed, we’re going to have problems.
HH: And the other worry I have is that once it starts to come online, it could be a $350-400 billion dollar program over the life, and we’ve got to have these. There’s no alternative. The Ohios will run out of gas. I mean, they won’t run out of fuel, they’re nukes, but they’ll run out of shelf life, that it will eat into our regular shipbuilding budget, which is already, what is it, about $13 billion a year? Is that what we’re spending?
RW: Well, Hugh, the highest we’ve been is about $15.75 billion dollars a year. And you’re exactly right. If you throw into that a $6 billion dollar ship, it absolutely takes almost everything else of significance out of the shipbuilding budget, including nuclear aircraft carriers, including the surface ships that we need to build now, plus amphibious ships. Now what we’ve tried to do to address that is to say that this ticket item is so big in the shipbuilding budget that we can’t fund it there. The Ohio class submarine was funded previously in the strategic part of our budget. So we’ve actually created a place this year separate from the shipbuilding budget to begin funding this submarine in a different account. Now it’s great to have that account, but Hugh, it’s just like opening up a savings account. You can have the savings account, but if you don’t put any money in it, then it’s not going to be there to build. And the account’s been opened, but there’s no money in it, yet. So that’s the critical part of what we need to do to get this SSBN-(X) program underway.
HH: Now in the next segment, I’ll talk to you about the regular shipbuilding budget, but let’s stay focused on this new account. Who specifically pours the money in? Is that the House and Senate Appropriators, Congressman?
RW: It is. The House and Senate Appropriators will specifically put money in this account. This account will be only for building our strategic submarine, which is the SSBN-(X). So it will be up to House and Senate Appropriators to do that. This year, we took the step through the National Defense Authorization Act to actually create that account. Now we still have to pass that. We’re working in conference, and I was just the other day working with senators and our conference committee to make sure that this happened when we get back for the lame duck session. And I have every belief that it will, and this account will be there. But there’s no money in it. And we’ve talked to appropriators to let them know hey, the account’s going to be there. We’ve got to build this submarine. And if we don’t, if we don’t put money in it, you’ve got to do more than just put words on a paper. You’ve got to put money in it. I think the appropriators understand that. Hugh, this leads into what I believe is one of the most critical discussions that Congress will have had in recent years, and that is when Congress comes back next year, when the 114th Congress comes back next year, they’re going to have to talk about this sequester, and setting that aside, and funding our military as part of a larger budget deal. If we don’t properly fund our military, you know, all bets are off. And that includes this SSBN-(X) submarine.
HH: More on that when we come back from break.
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HH: We’ve got an enormous challenge, that we’re talking about the sequester has really crushed our ship capacity, our ability to make ships. And I was touring a facility last week, Congressman, out in California, and was amazed to learn, you know, there’s nothing more basic and more necessary than our DDG’s, our destroyers.
HH: They are the backbone of taking care of the carrier. And we build two a year. Maybe we could build three a year. But that supply chain is really very limited. We’ve got a couple of facilities here and there that supply that. I learned about other lines of ships that depend upon one facility here, and one in Pennsylvania. I mean, we just don’t have the industrial base anymore that we need. And when we come back, if it’s a Republican majority, how confident are you that we can take it from, say, $13 billion a year to where it needs to be, which is probably closer to $25 billion a year for ships?
RW: Well, I couldn’t agree more, Hugh. The Congressional Research Services says that our shipbuilding budget should at a minimum be at, at least, $20 billion dollars a year. If you look at where we are right now, we’re at 273 ships. We’re on track, if we don’t fix this, to be at 260 ships. Admiral Locklear, who is the Pacific Command commander, said we go from a superpower to a regional power when our Navy gets to 260 ships. So we see what needs to be done, and you bring up the DDG’s, which is exactly right. The industrial base, those small vendors out there, they depend on building the parts for these ships. That’s their business. If we stretch out construction on these ships, those companies go out of business. There is no bench. There’s nobody else to go to. So if those companies go out of business, the folks that build those very specialized parts for our surface warfare ships, our destroyers, our submarines, our nuclear aircraft carriers, we don’t have them. And then where does that leave us? It leaves us in a terrible position. So we’ve got to build this shipbuilding budget back up. We’ve got to be building ships at a faster rate than what we’re retiring them, and we are retiring ships today, Hugh, faster than we are building them. And even the 30 year shipbuilding plan puts all the expensive ships out into the future. But if you look at the ships that are going to be built in the next five years, we are retiring ships faster than we are building them. That is a problem.
HH: So here’s the question. To what extent do your colleagues across the aisle understand and agree with the need? You can always fight with the budget men, and I’ve got around a few times with Chairman Ryan. I’m sure incoming Chairman Price, if in fact he becomes the Budget Chairman, will be at watch for Pentagon overspending. But even people like John Campbell, very suspicious of Pentagon increases, has come around on this in the new world that we’re living in with Putin in Ukraine, and China pushing out against Japan and Vietnam, and of course ISIS rising. They all know it’s the ships. So is there a consensus, do you think, to do the big bump up in the regular shipbuilding, in addition to that nuclear deterrent budget we talked about last segment?
RW: Well, Hugh, I think there’s building support. I’ve talked to folks on the other side. I think they understand the importance of our Navy fleet. They understand, too, that what we face around the world with the quantity of other ships, now our ships are the best ships in the world. But as the saying goes, quantity has a quality all its own. And when we have these competitors out there that now have much larger numbers of ships than we have, like China, you know, we have got to be able to catch up. And I think folks understand that. I’ve been working very hard both in the Republican Study Committee and across the aisle to get folks out there, to see what our sailors do at sea deployed. There’s nothing like standing on the deck of an aircraft carrier watching flight operations to really understand what the United States is all about, and the critical nature of sea power, because when you’re there with that carrier strike group, you get to see it all. And when I’ve gotten members out there to see that, believe me, it is the convincer. I just need to make sure that all members understand that, and they understand the investment that we have to make as a nation in order to make sure we have the Navy that we need. And that, to me, is the key. And we are still a ways away from that. Our 30 year shipbuilding plan does not do what it needs to do to provide the Navy that we need.
HH: Now I’m really hoping that if we get the Senate, that in November and December, as the budget analysts start talking to each other from House and Senate, they pay more attention to this than any other area of plus up. Let me ask you about the readiness part as well, because I know there’s a push to do a readiness supplemental, to try and repair some of the damage of the sequestration, maybe even in the lame duck. Do you think that’s possible, Congressman Wittman?
RW: There’s been some talk about that. I don’t know that it’s possible. What we are trying to do, you know, we’ve had this CR now that leads us through, or the continuing resolution, which is that short term budgeting bill, that leads us through the beginning of December. What we need to do is to get these appropriation bills done. There’s concern about the push to get things done for ISIS. As you know, the direction’s been given, but the funding for that in the longer term has to be addressed. My concern is you know, we’re going to have the proper training and equipping for members of the military that are going to be assigned for that, as the President calls it, non-combat role. Now I disagree. When those folks are there, they’re going to be on the ground in a combat situation. So that’s a whole different discussion. But we have to have the resources necessary for them to do the job they were asked to do.
HH: And I also have to ask with a minute and a half left, if we’re sending 3,000 men and women to Africa to help contain Ebola, and that’s a good mission, and it’s a necessary one, where’s the money going to come from, from that? That’s another hit on the DOD’s budget that isn’t anticipated.
RW: It is, and we’ve asked that. In fact, I’ve had individuals in my office from the Army asking them specifically where these dollars are going to come from. The initial designation has been from the existing overseas contingency operations fund.
RW: But there’s only so many ways that you can spend that money, Hugh, and that’s my concern, is that those dollars right now are dedicated to restore readiness as troops are coming back from Afghanistan, as we’re resetting the force. I get so frustrated that people want to spend that money two, three, four times. And you just can’t do that. And so I think that there’s a larger problem at issue here that we have to take care of, and we’re going to need to address that in the long term budget. You know, these short term budgeting operations, these contingency funding elements, don’t get us where we need to be in the long run.
HH: Congressman Rob Wittman, always a pleasure to talk to you from Virginia’s 1st District down in Norfolk way, listening, two of my affiliates covering that area both north and south, and always glad to talk to you, Congressman, chairman of the Sea Power and Readiness Subcommittee of the Armed Services Committee, co-chair of the Shipbuilding Caucus, chairman of the Board of Visitors at the United States Naval Academy, always great to talk to Rob Wittman.
End of interview.