Virginia-class sub program likely to survive

The Virginia-class submarine program is likely to stay on track despite the failure of the congressional "supercommittee" to deal with the nation's budget deficit, experts say. But the building of a new class of submarines could be derailed.

This week's breakdown of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction will trigger automatic, across-the-board spending cuts of $1.2 trillion - with half coming from the Defense Department - in January 2013 unless lawmakers reach some sort of agreement before then.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said such cuts would render most of the Pentagon's ship and construction projects "unexecutable."

Electric Boat in Groton and Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia now build two Virginia-class submarines a year. EB is also designing a ballistic-missile submarine that would replace the Ohio-class boats.

Retired Rear Adm. John B. Padgett III said it would be unwise to bring the production rate for Virginia-class submarines back to one annually to save money; the program is considered a "bright star" in the Defense Department for its exceptional execution and management.

"It will be hard for them to look at that and say, 'Gee, this program is doing well so change it and make it not do so well.' That doesn't make sense to me," said Padgett, of Old Lyme, president of the national Naval Submarine League. "If I were going to guess, I'd say the biggest risk right now is for a slip in the start of the Ohio replacement."

U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, said the Virginia-class program is in "a survivable position" given the shipbuilders' performance, the fact that the Navy is concerned that it will have too few attack submarines in the future, and the contract the Navy has with EB that would be "a nightmare to try to undo."

Loren B. Thompson, chief operating officer at the nonprofit think tank Lexington Institute, agreed. "The submarine community is unlikely to escape without feeling some pain," he said. "But I don't think it's likely that there will be any change in the plan for production of the Virginia class."

But Courtney and Thompson share Padgett's concern for the future of the ballistic-missile submarine, since it is in the beginning stages of development - and expensive. Each submarine after the first ship will cost $5.6 billion, a figure the Navy is trying to pare down to $4.9 billion.

Panetta, who toured EB last week, has raised the possibility of reducing the number of new ballistic-missile submarines from 12 to 10. There has also been talk of purchasing the lead ship later than 2019, as planned.

EB spokesman Robert Hamilton said it was "too speculative" at this point to comment.

Padgett - who served more than three decades in the Navy, commanding both the U.S. Pacific Submarine Fleet and Groton's Submarine Group Two - said "a number of contingencies" are in the works, depending on how much funding is cut.

Thompson said the submarine force may be somewhat protected since it uses a small portion of the Pentagon's budget. "But even if the submarine community ultimately escapes major budget cuts, the year ahead is likely to see a lot of uncertainty and worry about where we're headed," he said.

Courtney said Congress has time to work out an agreement that would avert the automatic cuts and preserve both submarine programs. But it will be tough in such a divided Congress.

"It would be pretty naive to predict smooth sailing," Courtney said.

j.mcdermott@theday.com

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