Navy now proposes to build an additional Virginia-class attack submarine over a five-year period
The Navy now intends to build 10 Virginia-class nuclear attack submarines instead of nine from 2019 to 2023, which, if approved by Congress, would be the best way to mitigate an expected decline in the size of the attack submarine force, officials say.
At a federal hearing on the Navy budget last week, Sean Stackley, assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development and acquisition, testified that the Navy wants to continue the two-a-year procurement rate of Virginia-class submarines with Block V. The Navy buys submarines in blocks, and Block V is the next to be built.
Today, the Navy's fleet of attack submarines consists of 52 boats; its strategic requirement is 48.
"We hit a valley of 41 boats in the 2030s. We start falling below the (requirement) line in the late 2020s. That valley exists because of years that we didn't build any submarines and then a long period of building one submarine a year," Stackley said in response to a question posed by U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District.
Since 2011, Electric Boat and Newport News Shipbuilding, partners in the Virginia program, have built two Virginia boats a year. The submarine builders have worked to drive down cost and the time it takes to deliver the boats to the Navy.
Courtney has earned the nickname "2 Sub Joe" after successfully lobbying for two Virginia submarines a year.
Plans call for one Virginia boat each year that an Ohio-class replacement boat is built starting in 2021. But the Navy is now proposing to build two Virginia boats in 2021 in addition to the Ohio replacement boat.
The Ohio-class replacements are the next generation of ballistic missile submarines to replace the aging fleet of "boomers" built in the 1980s and 1990s. Starting in 2019, the Virginia boats will be built with an added 80- to 85-foot-long section called the Virginia Payload Module intended to provide additional Tomahawk missile capacity.
In talking with EB and Newport News officials, Courtney said, the two companies have told him that they are capable of handling work on the Virginia and Ohio replacement boats and the Virginia Payload Module.
Total cost estimates for the Ohio replacement program range from $70 billion to $100 billion.
Courtney has pushed for the National Sea-Based Deterrence Fund to pay for the program outside of the Navy's regular shipbuilding account. To make his case, Courtney has pointed to a Congressional Budget Office estimate that up to $10 billion could be saved by using the fund.
"We're trying to identify, can we generate savings in the way we build the Ohio replacement (program) to help to fund and finance that additional submarine in 2021," Stackley said at the hearing. "It's not a part of the program of record. But if we don't work hard today, we'll miss the opportunity entirely, and the most important boat in terms of trying to mitigate the impact associated with that shortfall (in required attack submarines), is the 2021 boat, that second Virginia in that year, if we miss that opportunity, we will not be able to regain that later."
Two combatant commanders—Adm. Harry Harris, Jr., commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, and Gen. Philip Breedlove, the top U.S. commander in Europe—recently testified that the U.S. needs more submarines in light of Russia's and China's submarine force.
"I worry that we're gonna go down to 41 because as we go down to the low 40s, China is going to increase their submarine force, even as they are today. And then Russia, which has the most capable submarine force in the world next to ours, they're moving their generation SSBNs, simplistic missile submarines to the Pacific.... and that is just the beginning," Harris said.
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