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The Navy could buy three attack submarines annually for many of the years between 2014 and 2023 to prevent a shortfall in the fleet, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
The office recently reviewed the Navy's shipbuilding plan and found that if the Navy follows it, the service will have too few attack submarines, ballistic-missile submarines and destroyers.
To prevent that shortage, the office says, the Navy could step up the production rate for both attack submarines and destroyers in the near term, and begin purchasing the new ballistic-missile submarines in 2019 as originally planned. The current plan delays the start of construction on the new class by two years.
"I am pleased that we're getting that kind of validation from a neutral source because I think when some of us are making the case for stronger production levels, it sometimes gets discounted as parochial," U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, said Thursday. "This report really demonstrates that there are going to be real challenges with the fleet size if we're not careful."
If the Navy buys five attack submarines earlier in the 30-year plan and five fewer from 2025 to 2034, it could "maintain the desired inventory level," CBO said in its report.
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said that in theory, the accelerated schedule "certainly makes good sense." But, he said, the question remains whether funding would be available and how the change would affect the industrial base, since more employees would be needed through 2023 but not after.
"What's really maybe most significant is the recognition that the shortfall, or the shortage in submarine building, needs to be addressed and we need to build more, not fewer," Blumenthal said.
Electric Boat in Groton and Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia build two Virginia-class submarines annually under a teaming agreement, and EB is designing the ballistic-missile submarine to replace the Ohio-class boats.
The number of attack submarines in the fleet will drop below the stated requirement of 48 as the Los Angeles-class submarines - which generally were built at rates of three or four per year during the 1970s and 1980s - retire more quickly than they are scheduled to be replaced.
"We ought to be building two submarines a year, at a minimum, but in no way imperiling our defense industrial base and specifically our skilled workforce by creating uncertainty and instability in the program," Blumenthal said.
Courtney said there's "no question" EB could build more submarines. "Both in terms of the space that's down there and the employee base, they could handle it," he said.
He added that the three-per-year rate merits consideration and funds could be reallocated within the budget.
"Priorities can be changed based on changing perceptions of our security needs," he said. "We've been talking about the shortfall on the (House Armed Services) Seapower Subcommittee for the last five years. This report suggests that the message is getting through."