A Virginia-class attack submarine General Dynamics Electric Boat
A virginia-class attack submarine
A Virginia-class attack submarine General Dynamics Electric Boat

Washington – The National Sea-Based Deterrence Fund, an innovative way to pay for an expensive new class of nuclear subs likely to be built in Connecticut, was established a year ago without much fanfare, but is now embroiled in a political fight.

The now-controversial fund was promoted by Reps. Randy Forbes, R-Va., who represents Newport News, Va.; and Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, who represents Electric Boat and the New London Naval Submarine base. But a massive defense spending bill the House will consider this week includes a prohibition on financing the submarine fund.

In addition, a nonprofit watchdog group has raised concerns that two Navy officials interested in the fund may have violated restrictions of the Anti-Lobbying Act, which prohibits federal agencies from using taxpayer money to conduct grassroots lobbying of Congress.

The deterrence fund would use money that is not part of the Navy’s shipbuilding budget to help pay for a new class of nuclear ballistic-missile submarine that would replace the aging Ohio-class boats. The replacement submarines would be the largest in the U.S. military – and cost at least $6 billion each. The Virginia-class attack submarines, which do not carry ballistic missiles, cost about $2.7 billion apiece.

Anti-spending groups have condemned the National Sea-Based Deterrence fund as a budgeting gimmick, and congressional appropriators have rejected it.

But to Courtney, the submarine fund is needed to avoid “swamping the rest of the Navy’s shipbuilding budget.” The Navy budget is too small to provide for maintenance of the existing fleet and also pay for the new sub program, a potentially important source of employment for the state.

Rep. Joe Courtney
Rep. Joe Courtney CTMirror file photo

Courtney says there is precedence for establishing a separate fund to pay for an expensive weapons system. For example, missile defense was built with a special, separate account, he said.

But in these budget-conscious times in Congress, there’s resistance to the National Sea-Based Deterrence Fund. Under a $579 billion House defense spending bill that would provide billions of dollars for weapons systems built by Connecticut defense contractors, it would be eliminated.

“None of the funds provided in this or any other Act may be transferred to the National Sea-Based Deterrence Fund, “ the defense bill says.

The fund was established last year by the House Armed Services Committee, which counts Courtney and Forbes among its members, in a bill that reauthorized Pentagon programs. This year’s defense authorization bill would empower the defense secretary to divert unspent money from anywhere in the Pentagon into the submarine fund.

Forbes and Courtney were able last month to easily beat back an amendment sponsored by  Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., that would have eliminated the fund in the authorization bill. They hope to have the same success when they introduce an amendment to the defense spending bill this week. It would strip out the language prohibiting any spending on the National Sea-Based Deterrence Fund.

“We’re prepared to go out there and make the same arguments,” Courtney said.

Opposition by the House Appropriations Committee to the submarine fund does not mean there’s opposition to continuing the Ohio-class replacement program, however. The defense spending bill contains about $1.4 billion to continue research and design work on the Ohio-class replacement.

Questionable lobbying and a new mission

Mandy Smithberger, the director of the Project on Government Oversight, (POGO) a nonprofit, non-partisan government accountability organization, said establishing the National Sea-Based Deterrence Fund  creates a bad precedent, opening the door for any expensive weapons program to receive its own separate budget. The organization calls the fund “reckless and unaffordable.”

The Ohio-class replacement sub “is as important as any other weapons system,” Smithberger said. “Allowing the Navy to fund this program separately reduces discipline in the program and increases the likelihood of gross cost overruns.”

POGO has contacted the Government Accountability Office and the Senate Armed Services Committee about allegations that two Navy officers violated a ban on the use of taxpayer funds to lobby for the fund. The officers, who are up for promotions, are Admiral John M. Richardson, recently nominated to become the next Naval Chief of Operations, and Rear Admiral Joe Tofalo.

The officers reportedly appealed to attendees of the Naval Submarine League’s 2014 Annual Symposium to contact their members of Congress to support the Sea-Based Deterrence Fund and offered help with talking points and messaging.

The Navy did not respond to requests for comment.

But the Navy did announce a new command for Naval Submarine Base New London in Groton on Tuesday. It said it would establish an Undersea Warfighting Development Center at the base that would command two detachments located in San Diego, Calif., and Norfolk, Va.

Courtney said the establishment of the center expands the mission of the submarine base by adding  14 officers, 19 enlisted sailors, and 19 civilians to support the training of Navy forces in advanced tactics, techniques and procedures for anti-submarine warfare.

“It’s about as profound a statement by the Navy as to Groton’s military value as you can reasonably ask for,” he said.

Ana has written about politics and policy in Washington, D.C.. for Gannett, Thompson Reuters and UPI. She was a special correspondent for the Miami Herald, and a regular contributor to The New York TImes, Advertising Age and several other publications. She has also worked in broadcast journalism, for CNN and several local NPR stations. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Journalism.

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