Washington – A Pentagon official said concerns about threats from U.S. foes prompted the decision to boost the number of Virginia Class submarines built next year from a traditional two-a-year to three, at a cost of $10.2 billion.
In a detailed release of its 2020 budget request to Congress on Tuesday, the Pentagon has also asked for $72.3 million for a major upgrade at the Naval Submarine Base in New London — the construction of a new submarine berthing pier at the facility. This is the first time in years the Defense Department has asked for military construction money for the base.
The Pentagon has also asked for $11.2 billion to build 78 new F-35 fighter jets – whose engines are built by Pratt & Whitney, and increase its purchase of Sikorsky Black Hawk helicopters to 73, an increase from the Army’s 2019 buy of 58 helicopters.
The Defense Department also plans to purchase six “King Stallion” helicopters and six presidential helicopters from Sikorsky in 2020.
Rear Admiral Randy Crites, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Budget, said the new focus on submarines is directly tied to the 2018 National Defense Strategy, which prioritizes countering Chinese and Russian threats.
“We’re not in Kansas anymore,” Crites said. “We know that the competition is on and we need to be bigger.”
The Pentagon will ask Congress for $10.2 billion to allow Electric Boat, and its partner Newport News Shipbuilding, to build three fast attack Virginia class submarines, instead of the two it had scheduled for 2020 in previous budget projections.
That’s a huge increase over the less than $6 billion that has been traditionally appropriated each year for the Virginia-class program, because each sub will cost more, $3.2 billion apiece, up from $2.7 billion for the older boats.
The new subs will cost more because they will be larger and modified to included the “Virginia Payload Modules,” which will be placed on all boats built in 2020 and beyond, that increases the number of missiles each sub is able to launch.
Questions about shipbuilding capacity
The Navy’s request for an additional Virginia-class submarine was a surprise because, according to its 30-year shipbuilding plan, the Navy identified available shipyard capacity for increasing production in several years and determined 2022 was the earliest year EB and Newport News could support building three fast attack submarines.
The Navy last year also rejected calls to build an additional submarine in 2022.
The added submarine also comes as the Navy prepares to start building its huge and costly Columbia-class nuclear ballistic missile submarines in 2021. The Navy has asked Congress for $2.2 billion to continue preliminary work on the Columbia submarine program.
Electric Boat said it is ready to ramp up production.
“We are making significant investments in hiring and training the next generation of shipbuilders, in expanding our supply base and in upgrading and building new facilities so that we can meet the needs of the Navy now and in the future,” said Electric Boat spokeswoman Liz Power.
Connecticut lawmakers lauded the proposed boost in submarine production, but are critical of the Pentagon’s decision to trim the number of F-35s it wants to buy in 2020. At a cost of about $8 billion, the Pentagon has requested 78 F-35s, which are built by Lockheed Martin. That’s down from the 84 fighter jets the Defense Department had projected to purchase in 2020.
Instead of buying more F-35s, the Air Force decided to purchase eight new “advanced” F-15 jets. Unlike the F-35s, the F-15X is built by Boeing, and its engines made by General Electric.
The F-15X is considered a “4th generation” fighter, while the F-35 is a stealthy, and more expensive “5th generation” fighter.
“We really didn’t need, and couldn’t really afford, all fifth generation aircraft. And there was a really important place for fourth generation aircraft,” an administration official told reporters on a phone call with reporters.
President Donald Trump’s proposed $4.75 trillion budget to run the federal government in 2020 is under attack by Democratic lawmakers for its proposed cuts to health care and social safety net programs and for its inclusion of $8 billion to construct a border wall between the United States and Mexico. Reaction from many Republican lawmakers has been lukewarm, and even cool.
Despite the problems Trump’s budget may face from lawmakers, most of the Pentagon request is expected to be approved, with changes.
Besides tapping some defense money to build his border wall, the major problem facing the $750 billion Defense Department budget request, which is about 5 percent larger than last year’s, is that it raised some of the money for operations and weapons systems by tapping the Overseas Contingency Operations account, a Pentagon war chest that is usually used to fund combat operations and is not subject to budget caps.
The Trump administration requested $165 billion for the account in the 2020 fiscal year, up from $69 billion this year.
Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, a senior Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, called the president’s budget “shortsighted” because it would “slash investments in infrastructure, medical research, and American families, cuts that have been rejected by Congress two fiscal years in a row.”
“But now he relies on a budget gimmick, Overseas Contingency Operations funding (OCO), to fund a massive increase for the Department of Defense that is not subject to the budget caps, a gimmick his own Acting Chief of Staff rightfully criticized as a “misuse” of funding…” Leahy said.