USS Memphis passes the torch

Groton - The "Mighty Memphis" retired Friday, at a time when the Navy is still waiting for funding from Congress to build more submarines.

The USS Memphis was the fourth in a class of 62 subs designed and built to win the Cold War.

Now these aging Los Angeles-class attack boats are being retired faster than replacements can be built. The Navy, meanwhile, can't start buying more subs from Electric Boat because the House and Senate cannot agree on a federal budget.

"It certainly is a concern," Vice Adm. John M. Richardson, commander of the Submarine Force, said Friday. "The number we're trying to maintain is 48 (attack submarines) in the force. The combination of the decommissioning rate versus the build rate is going to cause us to dip below that."

He said he expects that to happen around 2020.

Richardson attended the decommissioning ceremony Friday at the Shepherd of the Sea Chapel for the Memphis (SSN 691), a sub he says has adapted well over time as the nature of the conflicts changed.

It was standing room only in the chapel, where current and former Memphis crew members and their families gathered to celebrate the accomplishments of both the submarine and its crews.

"Memphis stayed in the fight the entire way," Richardson said, from the Cold War to the current operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. He called the crews that served on the Memphis "the secret ingredient that made the ship what she was, all the way to this last deployment."

The Memphis returned from a short deployment in June and was not scheduled to go out to sea again. But the Navy needed to deploy a submarine close to Europe, and the Memphis crew headed there in January. The sub returned from its final deployment March 2.

Rear Adm. Richard P. Breckenridge, deputy director of the Submarine Warfare Division, asked the audience how many Navy ships could deploy quickly at 33 years old.

He answered his own question: "Only the great ship Memphis."

And, he said, "She stayed on the prowl 33 years, lunging through the tape at the finish line."

Cmdr. Jeff Joseph, the current commanding officer, was presented with the commissioning pennant. The Memphis now heads to the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in New Hampshire.

The Memphis was commissioned on Dec. 17, 1977, with then-Cmdr. Denny Hicks serving as the commanding officer. Hicks, of Waterford, who attended Friday's ceremony, said he wasn't going to dwell on the sadness surrounding the loss of a "tremendous asset to the fleet." Instead, he said, he wanted to celebrate its 33 years of service.

"We are passing the torch to the next generation of submarines," he said.

The next generation of submarines is the Virginia class, 30 submarines to replace the retiring Los Angeles class. Nineteen have retired so far and Memphis was the oldest sub in the fleet, circumnavigating the globe almost 60 times during its career, Capt. William Merz, commodore of Submarine Development Squadron 12, said Friday.

Last year the Navy bought one Virginia-class submarine from Electric Boat for $1.96 billion. This year it is expected to buy two for a total of $3.44 billion. But the federal government has been operating on a series of continuing resolutions that keep funding frozen at last year's levels.

Richardson said the budget impasse is having a serious effect on the plans to buy new ships for the future, as well as on the force's current level of readiness. It could prevent the Navy from building the second submarine this year, a ship Richardson called "absolutely critical."

Richardson said he is exploring options to mitigate the dip below the 48 submarines needed. Increasing the capabilities of current submarines won't do it, he said. The best plan may be to build two submarines a year until the total reaches 48.

With the departure of the Memphis, the Submarine Force will have 70 submarines, including 52 attack boats. Richardson said he's "hopeful" that the budget situation can be resolved so that the Navy will have the money for the second submarine this year.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who was at the ceremony, said the taxpayers "get their money's worth out of every submarine" and he would advocate for the submarine service in the Senate.

If a defense spending bill is not passed before Sept. 1, the planned construction start date for the second sub, the construction will be delayed. Thus far the Navy has managed to keep the plans on track using advanced procurement funding.

EB is also working on a program to replace the current fleet of Ohio-class, or Trident, submarines. If the design funding stays at last year's levels, it will delay the program by up to two years and increase the design and construction costs "on the order of several hundred million dollars," according to the Navy.

j.mcdermott@theday.com

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