Some in Congress say a new fleet of nuclear missile-armed submarines is so important -- and expensive -- that it requires a special fund, separate from the Navy's shipbuilding budget.
What if backers of other special weapons programs, like the new Air Force long-range bomber, also like the idea of a separate fund?
That is a quandary for Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain, who discussed the matter Tuesday in a hearing with top Navy leaders.
The answer is important for national security, because the new subs will pack most of America's nuclear punch.
It is also key for Newport News Shipbuilding in two ways.
First, the new subs will likely mean additional work for the yard, which already builds smaller Virginia-class submarines in partnership with General Dynamics Electric Boat of Groton, Conn. Second, without a separate fund to pay for the new submarines -- or without an overall infusion of money into the Navy's budget -- it could rob money from other shipbuilding programs that represent current business for the shipyard's parent company, Huntington Ingalls Industries
Appearing before McCain's committee Tuesday were Navy Secretary Ray Mabus and Adm. John Richardson, chief of naval operations. McCain asked Richardson what he thought of the National Sea-Based Deterrence Fund, which is being proposed to pay for the new submarines the Navy will begin acquiring in 2021. The new program will replace the aging Ohio-class submarines -- hence its name, the Ohio Replacement Program.
Its key supporters include Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Chesapeake, influential on shipbuilding matters in the House.
"I really embrace what that fund stands for," Richardson replied. "We are taking this extremely important program, a nationally important program, and elevating the discussion to a national level."
"Well, we want the discussion to be at a national level," McCain said, "but I'm not sure every new weapons system then wouldn't warrant the same kind of special treatment. That's the dilemma."
At a recent press conference, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James expressed exactly those sentiments. The Air Force is proposing a new long-range bomber, the B-21.
"Well, certainly if there is to be a fund for nuclear modernization, it seems to me appropriate that it be for all three legs of the triad (undersea, air and land-based) and not just for one leg of the triad," she said, according to a transcript. "So indeed if that is the approach to be selected, it seems to me that ought to be a joint fund."
Forbes, in a statement sent to the Daily Press Tuesday, said he is open to discussion about further uses of the fund, but the new Navy submarines are still a top priority.
"Nuclear assets are different from other programs and platforms because they are truly national assets, requiring a national effort to maintain," he said. "While the Air Force has not formally requested that its nuclear assets be funded outside the regular process, I am open to evaluating similar approaches for other strategic programs. However, the Ohio Replacement Program remains the wolf closest to the door and is an appropriate focus for our efforts at present."