Navy's most senior officer says he supports two boats per year

Dana Jensen/The Day Congressman Joe Courtney and Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations, hold a press conference after touring the Electric Boat shipyard in Groton Wed., May 2, 2012.

Groton — While visiting Electric Boat Wednesday, the Navy's senior officer reaffirmed that he wants the service to buy two submarines a year.

It's the most "effective and efficient way" to build Virginia-class submarines, Adm. Jonathan W. Greenert said, and the program is "probably our best." The only reason the Navy did not ask for a second submarine in fiscal 2014 was because of fiscal restraints, Greenert said in his first visit to the shipyard as the chief of naval operations.

"This company, these shipbuilders can get it done if we give them the work order," Greenert said while talking with reporters. "And that's the most efficient approach."

While Greenert supported keeping the Virginia-class program on track, he did not seem averse to a proposed two-year delay in the start of construction of a new class of ballistic-missile submarines, another important program for EB.

When asked about the future of the Naval Submarine Base, Greenert said the facility is valuable, but he could not say how it would fare in another round of base closings.

U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, invited Greenert and accompanied him to the base. Although the admiral, as a submarine officer, is intimately familiar with the shipyard, Courtney said, he thought an update on the submarine programs would be useful.

Greenert was briefed on the ballistic-missile submarine EB is designing to replace the Ohio-class boats. The Pentagon pushed the start date to 2021 because of strategic and fiscal concerns, Greenert said. He said he's comfortable with the decision and believes the industrial base can execute it.

The Pentagon also is calling for base closures in 2013 and again in 2015. Influential members of Congress have promised not to let the plan move forward this year, but the secretary of defense has said he will try again.

The Naval Submarine Base was nearly closed during the 2005 Defense Base Closure and Realignment process. Greenert said he couldn't say how the base would fare in a future round since it's a "very deliberate process," but he did say that the installation is valuable, particularly because of the training that takes place there.

At EB, Greenert saw pieces of a Virginia-class submarine in the early stages of construction and toured the Mississippi (SSN 782), the ninth member of the Virginia class.

The president's proposed budget calls for building one Virginia-class submarine in 2014 instead of two, and two in 2018 instead of one. Greenert thanked members of Congress, including Courtney, who are working to restore that submarine in the plans.

Mississippi, which cost about $2.6 billion, will join the fleet officially on June 2. Greenert announced while he was at the shipyard that he would accept the Mississippi on behalf of the Navy from EB nearly a year ahead of schedule.

He praised EB and Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia, who share responsibility for building the submarines, for delivering them quickly and under budget.

It took just over 62 months to build the Mississippi — the fastest delivery to date in the program. The early delivery is a "tremendous achievement," said Capt. John McGrath, commanding officer of the Mississippi, and the crew is proud of their part in it.

Kevin J. Poitras, whose first day as EB's president was Wednesday, said Greenert's visit energized the employees and made them even more proud of their work.

Six Virginia-class submarines are currently under construction. But the Navy will decommission as many as six fast-attack submarines a year as the aging Los Angeles-class boats retire, driving the number in the fleet below the stated requirement of 48 to a low of 39 in 2030, said Rear Adm. (select) Michael Jabaley, the Navy's Virginia-class program manager.

Delivering the Virginia-class submarines efficiently shortens the amount of time below 48, Jabaley added. Last year the Navy filled only 61 percent of the combatant commanders' requests for attack submarines.

"Instead of getting them out in 86 months, like we did on the first submarine, we're getting them out in nearly 62 months," Jabaley said in an interview after Greenert's visit.

The Navy is considering keeping some of the retiring Los Angeles-class submarines that are in good shape in the fleet for an extra deployment, and occasionally deploying submarines longer than the traditional six months, Jabaley said.

Greenert said the longer deployments are a possibility for the future, but six months is "about right" because of the maintenance schedule and training for the crew.

The Navy also is reviewing a study that EB completed on design options for bringing women aboard fast-attack submarines, which are smaller than the ballistic-missile and guided-missile submarines to which the first female submariners were assigned.

Greenert did not discuss the study with reporters. Jabaley said after that EB presented an "array of options on how the ship could be reconfigured to accommodate a mixed-gender crew," which vary in cost.

Berthing is the main issue, Jabaley said, but the submarines also would need safety equipment sized for women. He said it was too soon to speculate on the cost and he did not have a projected date for when the submarines could be modified.

j.mcdermott@theday.com

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