[UPDATED with details from the subcommittee mark] WASHINGTON: Just hours before the House Armed Services Committee rolls out its mark-up of the 2015 defense policy bill, the chairman of HASC’s seapower subcommittee is vowing to save the USS George Washington from early retirement and to preserve the nation’s fleet of 11 aircraft carriers.
[Updated: The seapower subcommittee's "mark" of its portion of the 2015 NDAA, released this afternoon, would fence off 50 percent of the budget for Office of the Secretary of Defense until the Secretary "obligates funds" to plan for and buy long-lead-time material for refueling the Washington's reactor core. That would in effect shut down the Secretary's staff for half the year unless he made a financial commitment to keep Washington in the fleet.]
Rep. Randy Forbes remains deeply concerned about the Navy’s plan to mothball seven cruisers (ostensibly temporarily) and about what he considers its too-modest ambitions for its new UCLASS drone – but language fixing those problems will have to wait till later in the legislative process, he told reporters this morning.
“I will tell you this, we will keep that carrier,” Forbes said at a Defense Writers’ Group breakfast. “You won’t see a mark coming out under my name that doesn’t have that carrier taken care of.”
What about the planes that go on the carrier, which the administration would also eliminate under a sequester-level budget? “The air wing worries me,” Forbes said. “We’re working on that too.”
“We’re still working on the cruisers,” he added, for which legislative language will likely come later in the HASC process. “It may be later even this week,” he said. While details are still being worked out after a key decision “last night,” Forbes told the assembled reporters, “I feel pretty comfortable we won’t go with the exact plan the Navy has.
As for the UCLASS, the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Surveillance and Strike drone, the Navy recently released a classified request for proposals with which Forbes and his staff are clearly dissatisfied. Forbes feels the Navy is putting too much emphasis on “surveillance” and not enough on the payload and survivability required for “strike.” So he intends to require Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to reconsider the Navy’s requirements – “there’s a lot of support within the department for this,” he said. While Forbes emphasized he doesn’t want to delay UCLASS, which he considers a high priority, he did say he may propose enforcing this mandate by “fencing” funding for UCLASS so the Navy can’t spend it until that relook happens.
[Updated & corrected: Until the Secretary's review was completed, the mark would forbid the UCLASS program from spending money on anything other than the review and day-to-day operations. While the Navy wasn't planning to award a UCLASS contract until 2016 anyway, not being able to spend 2015 money to prepare for that award could put a crimp in the program, creating pressure to comply with the HASC's mandates. (I'd misinterpreted this language in an earlier update to this article).]
Forbes saved his most scathing language for the administration’s aircraft carrier plan. The 2015 budget submission punts the decision to retire the USS George Washington or to refuel her reactors for another 25 years of service, with the administration arguing that they can’t make that call until they know whether Congress will accept their plan to go over the sequestration-level budget caps: The money to keep the Washington in service is in the portion of the budget request that’s above-and-beyond the Budget Control Act levels.
But “nobody in their right mind thought they were going to take that carrier out” for real, Forbes said. It was a political gimmick, he said – probably devised by “somebody at OMB” – to convince Congress to go along with the administration’s spending plan by saying that if they didn’t then one of the nation’s most iconic national security assets was at risk.
But in sending that message to Congress, Forbes argued, the administration also sent a dangerous message to our allies, friends, and potential adversaries, especially in the Pacific. “I don’t think there’s been a single ally who hasn’t been in my office asking, ‘what’s all this about pulling a carrier out?’” Forbes said.
The next decade or more will be a period dominated by seapower and long-range power projection forces such as bombers, Forbes argued – not coincidentally the jurisdiction of his subcommittee and a central industry in his district. Those capabilities need adequate funding, ideally under a larger defense budget but if necessary at the expense of lesser priorities.
“We’re an 11-carrier Navy in a 15-carrier world,” Forbes said. Pacific Command chief Adm. Samuel Locklear has testified that “he can’t do he needs to do with 11 carriers. He sure can’t do it with 10.”
[Updated: The seapower subcommittee mark contains a slew of other measures. The ones that most caught my eye?
Ohio Replacement Program: The mark-up language would create a "National Sea-Based Deterrence Fund" to pay for a new nuclear-missile submarine outside of the Navy budget. Navy backers have long argued the replacement for the current Ohio-class SSBN is both vital for national security and so expensive it will squeeze out other shipbuilding programs if the Navy is forced to bear the bill itself. The mark doesn't actually find any money to put in the account, though.
Littoral Combat Ship: The mark would order the US Comptroller-General -- who's entirely independent of the Pentagon -- to asses the Navy's "Small Surface Combatant Task Force," which is exploring upgrades and alternatives to LCS, and report on the SSCTF to Congress. That would effectively let Congress look over the shoulder of the task force, a nerve-wracking prospect for the Navy that would prefer to control what legislators see of its internal decision-making.
Fleet counting rules: The mark would create legal definitions for "combatant and support vessels" to forbid the Navy from adding certain types of ships to its count of the total "battle force," something which the Navy considers simply adapting to the times but which Forbes sees as padding the numbers.
Joint High-Speed Vessel: The mark-up actually likes this program and would order the Pentagon to study buying eight more JHSVs on top of the 10 already under contract, which would bring the buy back to the original but long-since abandoned total of 18.]