Rep. Rob Wittman on US Navy ship withdrawals and a sea-launched nuclear weapon

WASHINGTON — After two of four congressional defense committees debated their bills for fiscal year 2023, two key U.S. Navy issues emerged as the most contentious: the Navy’s plan to decommission 24 ships in a year and its decision to cancel a sea launched at low altitude. give nuclear weapons.

Regarding the nuclear weapons program, the Navy maintains that it does not want another mission to transport nuclear weapons similar in size to those dropped on Japan in 1945, arguing that its submarine fleets Attack sailors and destroyers are busy enough with their traditional missions. Some military leaders, however, say they should have another option available to them to deter Russia and China, which are deploying low-yield tactical nuclear weapons.

The House Appropriations Committee accepted the Pentagon’s proposal to cut funding for research and development of the weapon, although the Senate Armed Services Committee put $25 million in its bill to continue the R&D effort.

Meanwhile, the SASC last week barred the Navy from decommissioning 12 of the 24 ships on the Navy’s chopping block: five of the nine littoral combat ships proposed for early retirement, as well as four landing craft, two expeditionary transfer docks, and a cruiser.

The HAC spared the five LCS in its bill but did not board the other ships.

The House Armed Services Committee, which will annotate its defense bill on Wednesday, has so far voted at the subcommittee level to save the four docked landing ships and one cruiser and spare debate on the other ships for the full committee.

Rep. Rob Wittman spoke to Defense News the day before the House Armed Services Committee will mark its annual defense policy bill. Wittman, of Virginia, is the top Republican on the Sea Power and Projection Forces subcommittee and the second-highest-ranked Republican on the full committee.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Congress and the Department of Defense are divided over the fate of the nuclear-sea-launched cruise missile. What is your position and that of your HASC colleagues on the issue?

Many witnesses at committee hearings have stated that they believe the SLCM-N is necessary to fill a deterrence gap. There is nothing between the most powerful conventional weapon we have and a high-yield nuclear weapon. If your adversaries have that then they might believe that well if we deploy a low yield tactical weapon it’s not going to provoke the United States because all they have to respond to is a weapon which would certainly put us in full scale nuclear war.

So I think you need that, at least, to deter the Chinese. Their strategic and regional nuclear capabilities continue to grow. They have a weapon comparable to the SLCM-N. A credible deterrent must have a wide range of options. I think you can’t take SLCM-N off the table. I understand some people’s concerns about this, but I certainly think our deterrent capability far outweighs any concerns people might have.

How does HASC plan to solve the SLCM-N funding problem?

SLCM-N was not in the brand of chair Rep. Adam Smith, a Democrat from Washington, but there will be pressure during the markup to restore funding for the program. Everyone from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, has supported that. United States European Command, United States Strategic Command commanders. We are going to present an amendment tomorrow for funding. SASC provided funding last week during their markup; I think what you will discover is that HASC will mirror SASC in [its] markup for SLCM-N.

The Sea Power and Projection Forces Subcommittee has already voted to spare five ships from being decommissioned by the Navy, and the full committee is expected to debate banning the Navy from decommissioning a number of others. . What conversation has the committee had not only about its ability to insert funds to continue to operate, equip and maintain these vessels in fiscal year 2023, but also in the future?

We looked very carefully at what it would take to sustain those ships. We’ve also looked very carefully to make sure we’re still on the positive side of ships built versus ships retired, and I’m pretty confident that’s where we’ll end up. We fully understand the cost associated with vessels, the maintenance costs. The staffing cost is really going to be a bit of a stretch, as you have to outfit these ships even as they enter the dismantling process, and fully staffing them for operations isn’t going to be a huge increase. I think we can live with all the costs.

I think the most important thing is that this divest to reinvest strategy never has a logical connection between the removal of these legacy platforms and the introduction of new capabilities. I am in no way opposed to removing legacy platforms. But you can’t take those rigs out and then say, oh, we’re going to build the replacement rigs outside of the five-year future years defense program. All our dreams come true outside the FYDP. And the people who are making these recommendations today to retire these rigs won’t be around when the bill comes to build them – and also remember, with inflation and everything, the cost of replacing these rigs -shapes is going to be considerably bigger in the future.

The Navy is on track to reduce its fleet to 280 by FY27, so this debate about saving old ships and building new ships will continue for years to come. What do you think of the long-term effort to keep the fleet from getting too small?

Reducing the Navy sends the absolutely wrong message. We are not opposed to the withdrawal of old ships; what we oppose is a plan to replace that capability that may never materialize. You talk about growing the Navy from 297 to 280 by 2027, and the Chinese will be at 460 by then.

There are arguments that we need to retire the older, less capable ships, we can build something that keeps pace with China – you know, you can’t fight something for nothing. So not having a ship of any capacity becomes a liability.

I think you’ll find in this year’s markup that we’ll do everything we can to get some ships back for early retirement. We’re not going to buy the bulk of those ships. What we want to do, however, is make sure we make smart decisions with these ships. We looked very carefully at the economics of buying older ships and their material condition. I can assure you that we are not going to buy things that will cost us colossal sums to be able to remain in service.

What we also want to do is also make sure that the ships that we pull out, I think there’s a big opportunity for foreign military sales, especially to Indo-Pacific countries that could use these vessels and give us the opportunity to operate jointly with them, and with an asset which, for them, still has a long life.

What did your efforts look like to build a business case for saving some ships and allowing others to retire, based on their material conditions and projected costs?

There are 25 years of life left in the four Whidbey Island-class dock landing ships the Navy wants to retire. So I don’t think it’s necessary to do a full analysis to look at them and determine that they should be kept in the fleet.

On the cruisers, I visited the cruisers, looked and personally saw their material condition. I think there’s a pretty solid business case; it is not necessary to do an in-depth analysis to determine what it would cost to bring these ships back and determine that they should withdraw. But I also think that when you have a ship like cruiser Vicksburg that is 85% through its maintenance and upgrade period, it doesn’t make sense to me after that kind of investment to retire that ship – To me, this is a waste of the resources you’ve already invested in this ship.

For coastal combat ships, if you have a ship that’s only three years old and you want to retire it, and we know how much it costs to replace the combined years, we know the cost to bring that ship up to standard — and then you compare that to the cost of building a new ship. And when will this new ship be available? The frigate that would replace the LCS is years away from operational readiness. That’s how we envisioned it.

Megan Eckstein is a naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on US Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported on four geographic fleets and is happiest when recording stories from a ship. Megan is an alumnus of the University of Maryland.