Groton - Retiring U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman reminisced Friday at Electric Boat about his early years fighting to restore the Seawolf fast-attack submarine program, said a good case could be made for a future three-subs-a-year production schedule and then figuratively handed the baton of future battles over defense programs to U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney.
"This may be my last visit as a senator," said Lieberman, D-Conn., during a speech to about 200 EB workers that the company videotaped and replayed for a reporter. "I really love this place."
Lieberman said that with both Courtney, D-2nd District, and U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., on the Armed Services committees of their respective chambers, he was leaving his senior Senate position with "a lot of continuity" from other members of the state delegation.
"You've been a great ally of ours," said John Casey, former EB president and now an executive vice president of General Dynamics, EB's parent company, during an informal session with Lieberman after the senator's tour of the submarine-production facility off Eastern Point Road.
Lieberman said during a brief interview at the shipyard that he spent his early years in the Senate fighting on behalf of the Seawolf program. Then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney announced in 1990 that he was cutting by half the Navy's commitment to the program, hoping to slice $7 billion from the national budget as the first Bush administration attempted to cash in on a so-called "peace dividend" derived from the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Democratic legislators organized by 1992 to save the program from attempts to halt Seawolf production altogether.
Two decades ago, Lieberman said, many legislators and policymakers questioned the relevance of submarines in the modern era of warfare. But with their intelligence-gathering capabilities and ability to attack targets without sending military personnel into harm's way, submarines now are seen as integral to American freedom in navigating such far-flung waters as the South China Sea, he said. "Nobody questions their relevance to the national defense today," he added.
Lieberman said credit for the transformation can be laid at the doorstep of EB's 8,600 skilled workers, who have implemented a variety of shipyard efficiencies and designed submarines with remarkable capabilities. "I couldn't be prouder of what you do for the nation's security and prosperity," he said in his speech.
Courtney said Lieberman helped EB boost sub production from a one-a-year cycle to two boats a year. The boost in production, combined with new work to design a replacement for the Ohio-class submarine, has meant an increase in EB's workforce so far this year of nearly 300.
Courtney said he and Lieberman discussed with EB officials Friday other possibilities for generating jobs and revenue, including the possibility of attracting more repair work to the shipyard.
The legislators said EB might also benefit from a new Congressional Budget Office report that suggests a three-sub quota might be necessary in the future as Los Angeles-class submarines are phased out at a rate faster than replacements are scheduled to be produced.
"Instead of a two-sub debate, we may have a three-sub debate coming up soon," Courtney said.
"Why not?" Lieberman said of a three-sub schedule, which would maintain a Navy fighting force of 316 combat vessels. "There's a good case to be made for that."
Responding to concerns expressed by Blumenthal that a speeded-up schedule might be good for the near future but could erode the industrial base if cutbacks occurred later, Lieberman said he hadn't yet discussed the issue with Connecticut's junior senator.
"If it's a problem, it's a problem we can deal with," Lieberman said.