In a dramatic move, the HASC seapower subcommittee says in its draft version of the annual defense policy bill that it will put a hold on 75 percent of the entire Defense Department’s $289 billion operations and maintenance budget until the Defense Secretary delivers a 30-year shipbuilding plan.
Lawmakers have been in a low-level feud with Defense Secretary Mark Esper since February, when he held up release of the Navy’s force structure plan, designed to chart of course to a 355-ship fleet. Esper said the Navy’s work needed a fresh set of eyes, and put Deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist in charge of it. As part of the new chop of the Navy’s work, the 30-year shipbuilding plan, originally expected in January, has also been held under wraps.
Both documents are now expected in the fall, along with a new warfighting concept for the maritime service, including the Coast Guard.
Meanwhile, Navy officials say they’ve resolved about 85 percent of the welding problems on its Columbia nuclear-powered submarines, just as the service awards a $10.4 billion contract for the first two subs of the class.
A contractor discovered it made mistakes on welding missile tubes for Columbia and Virginia-class submarines, forcing Virginia-based BWX Technologies to pay $27 million to fix the problems and muse about getting out of the business of contracting with the Navy.
The problems were found on a total of 44 tubes. So far, 21 of those have been fixed and 11 delivered to the Navy, Rear Adm. Scott Pappano, head of the Columbia program, told reporters Monday.
The remaining 23 tubes are in the process of being fixed, “but they’re being done not in mass right now,” Pappano said. “So my guess is, right now it’s about 85 percent complete with all repairs across all tubes and all the vendors from the initial weld issue that we had.”
Missile tubes aren’t the only scare the Pentagon has had on the $128 billion Columbia program, whose 12 boats will carry 70 percent of the nation’s nuclear weapons in the coming decades.
Last week it was revealed that another company, Bradken Inc., had altered the results of tests designed to ensure that specialized metal parts made for Navy submarines met the service’s specifications. The Justice Department filed a criminal complaint and the company paid $10.8 million to resolve allegations it violated the False Claims Act by providing substandard steel components to the Navy.
Navy officials insist that, despite the altered tests, they have inspected the sub fleet and found no issues, but $38 million in penalties levied against two previously trusted contractors for highly specific and specialized work has raised concerns that the defense contractor base, which has been shrinking for years, is in trouble.
For now though, early work on the Columbia continues, with construction beginning in 2021 and a tight delivery schedule of 2028, according to Navy plans. Navy officials say COVID-related slowdowns have not altered the schedule.
“We’ve cleared all the materiel that was on dock for Columbia so we don’t have an issue, per se, with Bradken,” Navy acquisition head James Geurts said on Monday’s call. “Part of this contract award of the $869 million are additional funds we’ve been given from Congress to really focus on the supply base so that we can both get them operating at the quality levels that we absolutely will expect and demand.”
The Columbia deal, announced late Monday, includes that award of $869 million to Electric Boat to complete design work on the submarines, plus an intent to spend another $9.5 billion for the first two boats, which will begin when Congress appropriates the money.
In a statement, Rep. Joe Courtney, who represents Electric Boat’s district in Connecticut, underscored what a mammoth project the Columbia program is for the Pentagon. “The replacement of our sea-based strategic deterrent comes only once every other generation,” he said. The Columbia class will replace the Ohio class, which are reaching the end of their service lives.
It’s clear that Congress plans to monitor the program closely, and, in markups being conducted this week, lawmakers made it clear they plan to keep the Navy and Pentagon leadership on a short leash on a variety of programs.
Congress At The Helm
On the issue of unmanned surface ships, the HASC seapower and projection forces subcommittee says in its draft markup that it wants to hold funding for the large unmanned surface vessel, or LUSV, program until the Navy can confirm it has designed a workable mechanical and electrical system that it can operate autonomously for 30 consecutive days. The language reflects that in the Senate Armed Services Committee markup released earlier this month.
The House committee also recommends prohibiting the Navy from arming the LUSV until the “Secretary of the Defense certifies to the congressional defense committees that any large unmanned surface vessel that employs offensive weapons will comply with the law of armed conflict.”
The subcommittee also authorized the purchase of eight new warships, including a second Virginia-class attack submarine the Trump administration removed from the Navy’s budget.
The strategic forces subcommittee directs the Navy to focus on integrating hypersonic weapons on surface ships. According to one committee aid who spoke with reporters, it also asks for a report addressing “certain questions and concerns that are ongoing, including operational control authority, whether we need to update our war plans, who would be responsible for targeting requirements, what the risks of miscalculation would be and what the risk mitigations might be, and finally on basing strategies for a land-based variant.”
Included in that is the new Zumwalt destroyer, the first two of which have been delivered to the Navy and are currently undergoing testing as the service figures out what to do with the truncated three-ship buy. (D.N.).