Will Courtney work wonders for post-Trident subs?

The last Trident submarine, USS Louisiana, lies in the graving dock at Electric Boat in 1996, before the start of christening ceremonies. The Louisiana was the 18th and last of the Cold War "boomers."
AP Photo The last Trident submarine, USS Louisiana, lies in the graving dock at Electric Boat in 1996, before the start of christening ceremonies. The Louisiana was the 18th and last of the Cold War "boomers."

Little wonder no serious Republican candidate has emerged to take on incumbent U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District. The headlines just keep getting better for "Two-Subs Joe," so named for the instrumental role he played as a member of the Armed Services Committee in advocating and obtaining a two-submarine-per-year production schedule for Virginia-class attack submarines.

The importance of this achievement became more evident recently with the announcement by Navy officials of the signing of a record $17.6 billion contract for the next 10 Virginia-class submarines, two per year of course. That means a decade of steady work for the Electric Boat shipyard in Groton, which builds these technological marvels in conjunction with Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia.

It is also great news for the 362 companies that provide industrial supplies to EB, 129 of them in Two-Subs' district. Over the past five years, those 362 suppliers have received about $296 million in work tied to submarine construction, according to Courtney's office.

These are largely good-paying jobs, providing an energy shot to Connecticut's lethargic economy.

Using some creative accounting to spread out costs, Courtney worked with colleagues on Armed Services to beat back an attempt by the Obama administration to build only nine submarines over five years. Two-Subs could not settle for 1.8 subs per year.

These efforts have not gone unnoticed or unrewarded.

Found among the Top 5 donors to Courtney's re-election committee, according to the Center for Responsible Politics, is $20,500 from General Dynamics, owners of EB, and $10,000 each from the Boilermakers, Carpenters & Joiners and Electrical Workers Unions. Look at the Top 20 list, and you find $134,000 in donations from labor groups, $86,000 from the defense industry.

Courtney told me last week that in fighting for funding he and other members of the Connecticut delegation had a lot going for them. The workers at EB and Newport News have been delivering the Virginia-class submarines on time and at or under budget.

These are versatile military weapons, able to attack with cruise missiles when conflicts break out across the globe, great for gathering intelligence with their electronic eavesdropping ability, and able to clandestinely deliver special operations personnel to a hot spot. Their primary purpose is to fight a conventional naval war.

The congressman faces a tougher task in trying to deliver the next massive contract and job-creator project to EB, constructing the successor to the Ohio-class, Trident submarines. The Tridents are Cold War-era doomsday machines, nicknamed "boomers." They are essentially underwater missile-launching platforms, built to discourage any first-strike nuclear attempt by the Soviet Union as part of the MAD doctrine - Mutually Assured Destruction.

Today each Trident carries 24 missiles armed with 8 warheads, 192 warheads in all, each several times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb. With the Tridents nearing the end of their operational lives, the Navy wants 12 new ballistic-missile submarines to replace them, providing the ability to have several always moving through the world's oceans while others are serviced. The cost of design and construction is enormous - estimated at $80 billion - enough to operate Connecticut government for four years, given the current rate of spending.

While some groups question the need for any post-Cold War successor to the Tridents, a consensus appears to be building in favor of replacing them, with the debate instead focused on how many. By a 61-0 vote, the House Armed Services Committee last week approved a defense authorization bill containing $1.3 billion to continue design work on the Ohio-class replacement program.

While peace activists call this a waste of resources, National defense strategists contend that for 60 years the nation's massive nuclear weapons arsenal has discouraged any thoughts of large-scale war in a way that conventional weapons could not. Because the future is always uncertain, the ballistic-missile submarines remain necessary to deter attacks on the United States or its allies, Pentagon officials argue.

(It's a perilous trade-off. Should major war occur despite the existence of these weapons, it seems likely one side or another would eventually turn to them in the face of defeat.)

Because the Trident-replacement program is so expensive, it would suck up a huge percentage of the shipbuilding budget and face stiff opposition from lawmakers who wouldn't want to see their favorite defense program sacrificed. That opposition could mean eight or 10 ballistic-missile submarines are funded, rather than 12.

To prevent this, Courtney is pushing a proposal that borrows, appropriately enough, from the Cold War era - build the submarines off budget. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Congress undertook the "41 for Freedom" program to build enough submarines to keep up with the Soviets, separating it from the Navy's shipbuilding budget. Courtney's new separate boomer-building account is called the National Sea-Based Deterrence Fund, the language included in the authorization bill.

It's gimmicky and dishonest. Ultimately, taxpayers have to pay, no matter what newly added pocket from which Congress pulls the money. The nation cannot build every weapons' system the Pentagon may want. Priorities have to be set.

Yet if anyone can pull off the gimmick, it is Two-Subs. EB and the unions would not mind a bit if it took an extra pocket.

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.

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