Submarine force leaders: Expect a fight each year

Falls Church, Va. - Getting the money to buy two Virginia-class submarines per year will be "a constant battle," Vice Adm. Michael J. Connor said Wednesday.

"We win it every year," Connor, the commander of the submarine force, said. "Winning it one year does not guarantee that we win it the next year. That will go on as long as I'm in the Navy."

A second submarine is in the plans for 2014, Connor said, but the production rate could go down to one in future years.

Connor addressed Navy leaders, retired submariners and business executives at the Naval Submarine League's 31st annual symposium. Many of the speakers focused on the question of how to design, build and test submarines in an austere, unpredictable fiscal environment.

Connor told the group his first priority is building a new class of ballistic-missile submarines and missile systems to replace the aging Ohio-class boats. Next, he said, is buying two Virginia-class submarines per year, followed by developing new weapon and sensor payloads and unifying the undersea domain.

"I hope to not have to pick and choose among these but if we do, I'll pick from the top down," he said.

Electric Boat in Groton and its shipbuilding teammate Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia build the attack submarines. EB is designing the new ballistic-missile submarines.

While some were optimistic these programs would stay on track, Rear Adm. Richard P. Breckenridge, director of undersea warfare, said as the "budget guy" in the group, he was going to "temper this attitude of optimism a little bit and talk about the real future."

"It's pretty bleak, I've got to let you know," he said. "… We've got some perilous times ahead. The bridge is out. The flashing signs are saying 'slow down.'"

Breckenridge said he recently submitted the next budget, and while the submarine force came through the process in "fairly good shape" compared to other areas of the Navy, the budget now needs approval from people who may have different priorities. The Ohio-replacement program was kept intact, even accounting for the cuts under sequestration, he said.

Breckenridge said he believes about $4 billion per year should be added to the Navy's shipbuilding account in the future, when the ballistic-missile submarines are under construction, and the program must not be delayed any longer to save money.

The submarine force waited a decade to increase the production rate of attack submarines to two per year, and now the number in the fleet will drop from 55 to as low as 40. Breckenridge said any further "belt tightening" would be "absurd."

Adm. John M. Richardson, the director of the naval nuclear propulsion program, said the uncertainty surrounding the budget and the cuts so far have been "a tremendous distraction" that has "almost consumed" senior managers.

When the requirements for new submarines are discussed, Richardson said, questions are asked, such as, "Does it need to go that fast, dive that deep, be that quiet," "How many torpedo tubes does it need or does it need a torpedo room," and "How many ships do we really need?"

Through the symposium, it is important to ensure that leaders in government and the private sector understand the decisions that are potentially trading away performance and the risk of doing so, Richardson said.

"We start with the technically correct answer, realistic schedule and realistic cost estimate. If we make a change from that starting point, we should be clear-minded about what we're giving up, the risks we're incurring, and be deliberate in our decision-making," he said.

Otherwise, the submarine force could end up with a broken program, Richardson said.

Connor said he believes the submarine force can maintain all of its priorities, if it "fights very hard."

j.mcdermott@theday.com

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