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Pentagon could scrap new ballistic-missile submarine

By Jennifer McDermott

Publication: The Day

Published July 20. 2011 4:00AM   Updated July 20. 2011 3:54PM
Possibility of adapting Virginia class would change planning at EB

Groton - Electric Boat President John P. Casey has repeatedly said the work on a new class of submarines that is ramping up at the shipyard is critical to the company's success.

And EB is hiring hundreds of engineers for its growing New London design and engineering campus, many of whom will work on the new ballistic-missile submarine.

Now this work could be in jeopardy as the Pentagon considers scrapping the plans to build the class.

Marine Corps Gen. James E. Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters in Washington last week that "nothing is off the table" as the Pentagon looks to cut at least $400 billion from the budget through the 2023 fiscal year, according to a transcript.

Instead of building the new ballistic-missile submarine, Cartwright said, the Navy could make the Virginia class of attack submarines longer so they could carry ballistic missiles, according to published reports from the meeting.

EB spokesman Robert Hamilton said he could not comment on the issue.

This idea has been floated before but dismissed by many as unworkable due to the size of the ballistic missiles.

The latest generation of submarine-launched ballistic missile measures 44 feet and weighs 130,000 pounds. Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines, at 560 feet in length and 18,750 tons submerged, can carry up to 24 of the missiles. Virginia-class submarines are only 377 feet in length, with a beam of 34 feet, and weigh about 7,800 tons submerged.

"You cannot just take a Virginia-class submarine, drill a couple of holes and throw some missiles in it," said U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, explaining that it would take a "huge overhaul" of the submarine for it to be able to "fire these massive rockets."

The Navy would have to buy a smaller version of the missile, which would be expensive since it hasn't been produced in years, Courtney said.

"If you incorporate those costs into this modified Virginia-class sub, the hoped-for savings really start to diminish," he said.

Courtney said the House Armed Services Committee studied the issue over the past two years because of concern over the hefty price tag for the 12 new ballistic-missile submarines and the pressure it would put on the Navy's shipbuilding budget.

Each submarine is expected to cost between $5 billion and $7 billion. The Defense Department's goal for the cost of each submarine, two through 12, is $4.95 billion each in 2010 dollars, according to the Navy. The lead ship is more expensive because design costs are factored in.

The Navy plans to buy 12 to replace the 14 current Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarines that will reach the end of their service lives, with the lead ship purchased in 2019.

Norman Polmar, a naval analyst and submarine warfare expert, said he has been advocating for a smaller submarine based on the Virginia design for years because the replacement program, which he believes could add up to $100 billion with research, development and construction costs, is simply unaffordable.

The Virginia design could be enlarged to add a missile compartment so the submarine could carry about a dozen of the smaller missiles, for a cost of between $3 billion and $3.5 billion to build each modified sub, said Polmar, who has served as an adviser to several top Navy officials.

The highly capable ballistic-missile submarine is certainly warranted, he said, but the Navy would have to compromise too many of its features to bring down the cost. The best solution is to build the modified submarine until the Navy can afford the proper ballistic-missile submarine, Polmar said.

Earlier this year, the Defense Acquisition Board endorsed the initial plans for the new ballistic-missile submarine and the planning was recognized as an official Department of Defense program. The House of Representatives has passed the fiscal 2012 defense appropriations bill, which includes $1.3 billion to continue developing the replacement submarine.

The potential for a change in direction rattled the state's senators, who are strong supporters of submarine construction given its importance to the local economy and to national security. Electric Boat employs about 10,000 people.

"The Navy has concluded the Ohio Replacement Program best meets the country's future strategic deterrent needs," said U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., adding that other options, including the one mentioned by Cartwright "have been reviewed by the Navy and determined to be less attractive, less affordable and less technically feasible and effective."

In this austere budget environment, Blumenthal said, the focus should be ensuring that the replacement program meets "aggressive operational and affordability goals."

U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., is also skeptical of any proposal to replace the program with a modified Virginia-class submarine, according to spokeswoman Whitney Phillips.

He is concerned that it would neither save money nor produce a submarine with the same capability, she said.

j.mcdermott@theday.com

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