Washington – Democrats and Republicans in Congress both agree that President Donald Trump’s proposed cuts to social and health programs are dead on arrival, but his plan to cut a submarine built by Electric Boat is very real.
The steep cuts in domestic spending proposed by Trump in his 2021 budget have been dismissed in Congress because the president agreed to increase domestic spending in a two-year budget deal he signed in August that also increased defense spending.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said this week that that deal will stand.
“We’ve got the (budget) caps deal in place. We negotiated it last year. It’s good for the second year and we’ll comply with that,” McConnell said.
The two-year budget deal raised military and domestic spending by $320 billion, split about 50-50 between the Pentagon’s priorities and domestic programs.
While Trump’s budget, released Monday, slashed the deal’s domestic spending, it kept the Pentagon’s budget, at $705 billion, intact. But the president’s budget shifted money from some military programs, including the Virginia-class submarine program, to other Pentagon priorities, including the newly formed Space Force and the nation’s nuclear arsenal. The Navy decided to fund construction of one Virginia-class submarine instead of two in its 2021 shipbuilding budget.
The reason? The Navy has other priorities and is concerned the Groton-based Electric Boat and its partner, Newport News Shipbuilding, does not have the trained workforce to build two Virginia-class attack submarines as well as the first Columbia-class submarine, a huge, expensive nuclear ballistic missile sub, at the same time. While Trump’s budget would cut down the Virginia-class program, it proposes spending $4.4 billion next year on the massive Columbia-class boat.
“The Navy’s original plan was to build two Virginia-class submarines, as well as the Columbia-class sub. Now the Navy is reverting to back to where it had been, two subs a year,” said Loren Thompson, defense analyst at the Lexington Institute.
Thompson said Congress will ultimately decide how the Pentagon’s money is spent, and whether there will be funding for two or three submarines in the Navy’s 2021 shipbuilding budget.
“But it will depend on the availability of the money and whether the workforce is capable of building three submarines at the same time,” Thompson said. “If you do three in parallel, it could put stresses on the workforce.”
“Finding an additional $2 billion for a third submarine will be a heavy lift for the Connecticut congressional delegation.”
Defense analyst, Lexington Institute
Thompson said it’s difficult for Congress to increase the Pentagon’s budget beyond the money both the budget deal and the president has proposed, because of a “squeeze between a desire for more domestic spending and increasing (federal) deficits.”
“Three will be a lot of competition, and finding an additional $2 billion for a third submarine will be a heavy lift for the Connecticut congressional delegation,” he said.
Those lawmakers have already demanded that the Navy explain its decision to cut back from two to one Virginia-class sub in its 2021 budget.
Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, who is the chairman of the House Armed Services seapower subcommittee, and Rob Wittman, the top Republican on the panel, who represents the Virginia district that’s home to Newport News Shipbuilding, wrote a letter to Defense Secretary Mark Esper this week about the lack of a 30-year shipbuilding plan in the Pentagon’s budget submission.
“The FY21 budget requests eight ships, of which just six are combatants. This is a significant deviation both to the FY20 budget request, which planned 10 ships in 2021, and the final agreement on the 2020 authorization and spending measures that approved 12 ships,” the lawmakers wrote. “We also note that the budget request plans procurement of 44 ships between 2021 and 2025, a nearly 20 percent reduction from the 54 that were planned over this period previously.”
Meanwhile, Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, also wrote Esper this week, demanding an immediate explanation why the Fiscal Year 2021 budget request funds only one Virginia-class submarine.
“Given that fast attack submarines are critical in ensuring our nation’s essential undersea superiority, we fail to understand the abrupt abandonment of the two-per-year delivery commitment for the Virginia Class program. We hope you will reconsider this dangerous departure from our long-established, bipartisan commitment to undersea predominance. Congress should do so if you do not,” the senators wrote.
And Blumenthal and Murphy, joined by 15 other Democratic and Republican members of the Senate, wrote Navy Secretary Thomas Modley on Thursday demanding an explanation for the cutback in Virginia-class submarines.
“Given the importance of the Virginia Class program in achieving our strategic objectives, we request additional information on any new fleet design proposals–particularly any reductions in submarines–and whether fully funding only one Virginia Class submarine in FY 2021 would compromise submarine force readiness,” the senators wrote.