WASHINGTON: The chairman of the House seapower subcommittee, Rep. Joe Courtney, fired a shot across the bow of the White House shipbuilding budget, questioning its proposed cuts to surface warships.
An even more prominent Democrat, Senate Armed Services chairman Jack Reed, signaled loud and clear he plans to treat the Biden budget as a rough draft, not gospel. While Reed didn’t cite specific areas of disagreement the way Courtney did, he sounded sympathetic to pleas for higher spending.
“The President’s Defense Budget Request is an outline and a starting point,” Reed said in a statement late Friday. “Of note, Fiscal Year 2022 is the first in many years that we will not be constrained by the Budget Control Act. Eliminating arbitrary spending caps means every department’s budget can, and should, be argued on its merits.”
“There must be a bipartisan commitment to truly bringing the power of the purse back to the Congress,” Reed added.
Reed isn’t just blandly asserting congressional prerogatives in general. Congress really does have more leeway to plus up the budget with the demise of the Budget Control Act caps.
It’s also worth noting that Reed’s counterpart, House Armed Services chairman Rep. Adam Smith, didn’t put anywhere near as much emphasis on Congress’s power to revise the budget. His statement, also issued late Friday, says mildly, “I look forward to thorough bipartisan hearings and discussions with DoD leadership on the budget request to better understand how the interim National Security Strategic Guidance and the Administration’s policies shaped this budget request as we construct this year’s National Defense Authorization Act.” That’s surprisingly deferential to the White House for the often-acerbic Smith.
In his statement, Smith largely stuck to praising the Biden plan on a host of points, from its clear strategic focus on China and Russia – “As I’ve said before, the strategy behind how the Department spends the money is much more important than how much money is allocated” – to its divestment of aging weapons.
In a surprising move, Reed praised the administration for its plan to scrap older equipment to modernize the force, saying that “the proposed divestments of $2.8 billion of equipment across the services is also well-reasoned.” Members of Congress traditionally oppose the en masse retirement of existing equipment if it affects budgets and jobs in their districts.
Both Reed, of Rhode Island, and Courtney, of Connecticut, highlighted the budget’s support for nuclear-powered submarines, which are built in their home states.
“The proposed reinvestment in essential platforms like the Columbia- and Virginia-class submarines is a prudent decision,” Reed said. The giant boomers will carry nuclear missiles, while the smaller and more numerous Virginias are attack boats.
“The nearly $12 billion request for submarine construction and development is the largest investment in our undersea fleet since the 1980s,” Courtney enthused Friday. “The shipbuilding budget protects that priority far better than what we saw in the last President’s budget submission in February 2020,” when President Trump tried to cut Virginia production from two a year to one, a cut reversed by a congressional revolt led by Courtney.
But, Courtney went on, other aspects of the shipbuilding budget are less satisfactory. “One notable concern is that the budget asks Congress to both authorize the reduction of the aging cruiser fleet, and also decrease the procurement of Flight III destroyers meant to replace the decommissioned cruisers,” he said. “This is an inconsistent policy that will leave the Navy shorthanded of a ship that can perform air warfare command to support our aircraft carriers. In addition, cutting a destroyer will negatively impact a fragile industrial base, which depends on stable and predictable production.”
The Navy’s Ticonderoga-class cruisers and Arleigh Burke-class destroyers are also known as Aegis ships, because they’re built around the Aegis air and missile defense system, which allows them to protect supercarriers and other vessels from attack. The Navy has tried on and off for years to retire the aging Ticonderogas but Congress repeatedly forced them to modernize the ships instead. The Arleigh Burkes are still in production, in the much-ugpgraded Flight III variant, at a rate of two per year – but the Biden budget asks for only one.
The Biden plan does add another surface warship, the first Constellation-class frigate. The frigate does have a version of the Aegis system, but it lacks the radar and firepower to perform the same fleet-defense role as the larger destroyers and cruisers. The Constellation is also being built at Fincantieri Marinette Marine in Wisconsin, not at the traditional destroyer yards in Virginia and the Gulf Coast.
It seems likely that Courtney and his seapower committee will push for more surface warships, particularly restoring an Aegis destroyer. The big question is whether Smith, as House committee chair, will support that revolt against the Biden budget. Reed, in the Senate, seems more likely to be sympathetic. And the Senate often wins.