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Efforts to boost Pentagon budget may start with Navy

Congress may increase the Navy's shipbuilding accounts above what was requested

Rep. Wittman, R-Va., is skeptical of the Navy’s plans to decommission unwanted hulls.
Rep. Wittman, R-Va., is skeptical of the Navy’s plans to decommission unwanted hulls. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

When congressional hawks look to increase the Pentagon’s budget again this year, one of the first places they say they’ll turn to is the Navy’s ships account. 

The defense committees are likely to add aircraft, ground vehicles and other military systems to the fiscal 2024 budget above the number President Joe Biden requested. But if recent history and lawmakers’ words are a guide, then Navy ship programs will stand out as the most likely recipients of largesse and the new warships, or older vessels kept in service instead of being retired, could add billions of dollars to the defense budget total.

In fact, Congress wrote, and the president signed into law, defense spending bills in each of the last two fiscal years that added about $4 billion for ships the Navy did not officially seek. 

The robust shipbuilding spending is due in no small way to the fact that the defense panels are largely led by lawmakers who hail from states with major shipyards or Navy installations.

One of those legislators, Virginia Republican Rob Wittman, a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, all but guaranteed on Tuesday that the next Pentagon authorization and appropriations bills will support buying and deploying more warships than the administration wants. 

“Now listen, I have no reservations that the Congress will step in and fill these gaps,” Wittman told reporters. “I’m not a mathematician, but you don’t do addition by subtraction.”

Susan Collins of Maine, the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee and its Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, told CQ Roll Call that the Navy’s fleet would actually shrink over the next five years under the administration’s budgetary proposal: from 296 today to 291, despite an official Navy inventory goal of 373 ships.

“The shipbuilding budget is clearly insufficient, given the threat from China and the buildup of the Chinese fleet, which is larger than ours and is on its way to reaching a goal of 400,” Collins said.

Power brokers

Many of Wittman’s constituents either build warships at Newport News Shipbuilding or work for the Navy in and around the service’s hub of Norfolk. Collins’ state of Maine is the home of General Dynamics Bath Iron Works. Wittman and Collins are two of several lawmakers on defense oversight panels who represent ship interests. 

Alabama has the Austal USA shipbuilder in Mobile, and Alabama’s congressional delegation includes House Armed Services Chairman Mike D. Rogers and Robert B. Aderholt of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, both Republicans.

Roger Wicker, who is the Senate Armed Services Committee’s top Republican, hails from Mississippi, where Ingalls Shipbuilding cranks out destroyers, amphibious ships and Coast Guard cutters.

Also from Mississippi is Rep. Trent Kelly, a Republican who chairs the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces.

Maine is represented in the Senate not only by Collins but also by Angus King, an independent who is a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. 

That committee’s chairman, Jack Reed, a Democrat from Rhode Island, represents numerous shipyard workers in the Northeast, particularly those in the submarine business. So, too, does Joe Courtney, D-Conn., who is the ranking member of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces.  

Warships on horizon

The administration’s new budget, made public Monday, sought nine so-called battle force ships: a Columbia class ballistic-missile submarine, two Virginia class attack subs, two destroyers, two frigates, a refueling oiler and a sub tender. 

The money for those ships and related assets would total $32.8 billion, according to a Navy budget document.

However, several ship programs to which Congress added funds in the fiscal 2023 spending bill (PL 117-328) are not included in Biden’s new request. 

For example, last year when the administration asked for two Arleigh Burke class destroyers, known as DDG-51s, Congress inserted money in the fiscal 2023 measure for three destroyers in total, each of which costs roughly $2 billion.

The same pattern may recur this year if lawmakers from shipyard states have anything to say about it — and they do. 

“If we really are going to achieve the numbers that are outlined in the Navy shipbuilding plan, it seems to me that three DDGs are justified,” Collins said of the destroyers, some of which are built by Bath Iron Works in Maine.

Amphibious shortfall

Appropriators also added nearly $2 billion last year for other ships, including to procure parts for a large-deck amphibious vessel and an amphibious transport dock ship, plus funds for three ship-to-shore connectors and two expeditionary medical ships, in addition to money for shipyard infrastructure.

Besides possibly adding money for a third destroyer again this year, lawmakers will strongly consider providing unrequested procurement funds to advance construction of more amphibious ships.

The administration has not sought any money in its fiscal 2024 request for amphibs, as they are called. And the Navy’s five-year budget blueprint contains only a handful of these ships. 

Collins said she was “stunned” to see the lack of amphib funding in the new budget. 

“The commandant of the Marine Corps has talked to me about the need for more amphibs,” she said.

The amphib fleet would dwindle not only because construction is slowing but also because of amphib ship retirements. The Navy plans to decommission 11 ships of varying classes in total, compared with 24 a year ago. Of those 11 ships, eight have at least a couple of years left on their service lives. 

Headed for the scrap heap under the plan are three amphibious dock landing ships that the Navy says have deteriorated. Also on the list are two Littoral Combat Ships that have most of their 25-year lives left but have been plagued by mechanical snafus and questions about their utility. Some in Congress think those ships still have some value.

The defense committees have regularly pushed back against retiring ships with life still left in them, and it is a safe bet there will again be pushback this year. 

“I think the question needs to be: What are we retiring and what are we doing as a replacement?” Wittman said. “Listen, if there was a clear vision to say, ‘We have something else that can provide the same sort of coverage,’ then I’m all in.” 

Briana Reilly contributed to this report.

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