Navy head: Cutting shipbuilding for nukes, Trump border wall 'not helpful'

Navy head: Cutting shipbuilding for nukes, Trump border wall 'not helpful'
© Greg Nash

Diverting money from the Navy’s shipbuilding budget to a nuclear agency and to fund President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump orders US troops back to active duty for coronavirus response Trump asserts power to decide info inspector general for stimulus gives Congress Fighting a virus with the wrong tools MORE’s border wall is “not helpful,” the Navy’s top civilian told lawmakers Thursday.

“To be frank, it’s not helpful because it takes a ship out of a plan we’re driving toward,” acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly told the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday.

“It particularly is harmful in the sense that it takes a ship out of a category of ship for which we’re going to have a hard time getting to anyway,” Modly added in an apparent reference to the Virginia-class submarine.

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The Navy plans to have 355 ships in 10 years.

Lawmakers in both parties have been fuming that the Pentagon’s budget request for fiscal 2021 would cut the Navy’s shipbuilding by $4.1 billion from this year to fund just eight new ships. Lawmakers are upset that the budget would fund one Virginia-class submarine, not two as had been previously planned.

Budget requests lay out an administration’s priorities for the coming fiscal year, but are not binding, as Congress has the power to set spending levels. Lawmakers have indicated they are unlikely to follow the request for shipbuilding.

The second Virginia-class submarine was cut amid pressure from other lawmakers to increase funding at the National Nuclear Security Administration, which would get a nearly 20 percent boost in funding to $19.8 billion under the administration’s budget request.

Adm. Michael Gilday, chief of naval operations, told the committee the shipbuilding cut “happened at budget endgame very quickly,” adding that Navy officials “were informed after the decision was made.”

Even before the cut, Modly said, the Navy was projecting it would take 10 years to get 49 to 50 of the 66 attack submarines it believes it needs.

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Meanwhile, earlier this month, the Pentagon told Congress it was transferring $3.8 billion from various weapons programs to its counter-drug fund in order to build Trump’s southern border wall.

The total transfer for the wall includes $911 million from shipbuilding programs, including the landing helicopter assault ship replacement program and the expeditionary fast transport program.

Navy aircraft were also hit by the reprogramming, including the F-35 fighter jet, the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft and the Boeing P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol plane.

Modly, Gilday and Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger told the committee Thursday they were not consulted before the final decision on the $3.8 billion transfer, though Modly added that “we knew that they were looking at a variety of different options, and then at the end those options were presented to us.”

Modly insisted the Navy remains committed to its goal of a 355-ship fleet despite the cuts.

“While this budget does slow our trajectory to a force of 355 ships or more, it does not arrest it,” Modly said. “You have my personal assurance that we are so deeply committed to building that larger, more capable, more distributed naval force within what I consider a strategically relevant time frame of no more than 10 years.”

Committee Chairman Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithOvernight Energy: Military sees surge in sites contaminated by 'forever chemicals' | USDA closes office wing due to coronavirus | Watchdog raises concerns over Trump energy regulator Military sees surge in sites with 'forever chemical' contamination Stock market plunge should incentivize firms to develop a coronavirus cure MORE (D-Wash.) said the 355 ship goal is “almost meaningless at this point” since it could take decades to achieve.

“It is great to have goals, I suppose, and we can aspire toward that number, but at this point, it seems like just that; an aspiration doesn't translate necessarily into a strategy,” Smith said.