WASHINGTON: Every senior civilian leader and the Navy agree that America needs replacements for the Ohio-class nuclear missile submarines if our nuclear deterrent is to remain credible. But the SSBN-X, as the program is known, is at risk from the mandatory budget cuts known as sequestration, the influential head of CAPE, the Pentagon’s budget and cost estimation shop, Christine Fox, said yesterday evening.
CAPE, known formally as the office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation, not only does program evaluation for the Defense Secretary but it also builds the Future Year Defense Program (FYDP), a key part of the defense budget process. I asked Fox at the end of the McAleese Associates/Credit Suisse conference what the Pentagon can do to protect new starts if sequestration remains in force and it must cut such large amounts from existing programs.
“I wish I had a really snappy answer. We have to have a new SSBN and we need the bomber,” Fox said. Basically, the Pentagon and the defense industry have to “hold our breath for a few years” and do what is necessary to protect those crucial new starts, which include the Long Range Strike Bomber program. Her basic prescription for protecting them is this: “What can we not do today but still protect that capability.”
Fox also said at one point in her address that sequestration would “gut” the Pentagon’s efforts if it remained in force and the building had to cut about $50 billion each and every year for the next decade.
One of the longer-term problems is that both the Pentagon and industry have a wish-fulfillment problem. “What I will tell from a CAPE perspective is our biggest problem is our own delusional requirements and desirements for things we can’t really afford,” Fox said. She called on the industry folks in the room to help her with that and to bring her new programs that really, truly are affordable. Don’t come in with a low price that magically balloons several years later because the new reality means those programs will be cut.
If industry really wants to protect enormous programs like the F-35 (as the head of acquisition, Frank Kendall, said the Pentagon wants to do yesterday before Fox spoke) and new starts such as SSBN-X, they might take Fox’s advice to heart and spend less time pushing money in various forms at members of Congress to try and get around the Pentagon budget process. On the other hand, an awful lot of good weapons have been bought in spite of the Pentagon and because Congress foisted them on the building. Sigh. If only this stuff were simple and our leaders truly wise then we could all probably save some serious money.
In the meantime, let’s hope Fox’s shop keeps churning out highly accurate cost estimates — she said they are often within several percent of reality — and keeping everyone a bit more honest from the beginning.