For Navy Sub Planning, 2021 is Coming Up Fast

Virginia Class Attack Submarine SSN

In military shipbuilding, where the long view is required, 2021 is already considered a pivotal year for the Navy and Newport News Shipbuilding.

That year, the Navy plans to acquire the first of 12 ballistic missile submarines. Armed with nuclear warheads, these "boomers" will replace the aging fleet of Ohio-class boats that now patrol the seas.

The new subs are the Navy's top priority, and the Newport News shipyard, a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries, stands to get a share of that work. For the company, that's the good news.

The not-so-good news: To make room for the giant submarines, the Navy will tap the brakes on its Virginia-class submarine program, building one per year instead of the current two. Virginia subs also represent a good chunk of business for Newport News and General Dynamics Electric Boat of Groton, Conn. The two yards build those subs in a teaming arrangement.

Navy leaders aren't keen on the idea of abandoning its two-per-year program for Virginia-class subs. So they're already working on Plan B: Find the money to build three submarines that year and keep the Virginia-class production line humming along.

In recent congressional hearings on the 2017 defense budget request, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus told lawmakers to stay tuned.

"We are undertaking a look right now -- a pretty intensive look because we do think it's important -- to continue the two Virginia class (subs) per year," he told the Senate Armed Services Committee. "This will be part of the '18 budget submission. I'm confident it will go in there."

Mabus said he thinks the shipyards have the capacity and ability to do it. Newport News and EB are the only two shipyards that build nuclear-powered submarines for the Navy.

"We're dealing with them now," he said.

Newport News shipyard officials could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

The Virginia-class submarine program, which had early challenges, is considered a Defense Department success story. The Navy buys the submarines in "blocks" to save money.

Earlier this month, Newport News celebrated the christening of the future USS Washington, the 14th Virginia-class submarine and the seventh to be delivered by Newport News. Construction began in September 2011, which marked the start of a two-subs-per-year construction plan.

The last eight ships have been delivered on budget and ahead of schedule, Navy officials say. But economics is not the only reason to keep the production line hot, officials say.

Virginia subs are in high demand by the Navy in the Asia-Pacific region, where they give the U.S. an edge over China and Russia.

The current fleet of attack submarines includes the Virginia class and the older Los Angeles class. It now stands at 52. That's above the Navy's requirement of 48, but the number will hit a low of 41 in 2029.

Building that extra Virginia class submarine in 2021 will ease the shortage going into the 2020s, said Adm. John Richardson, the chief of naval operations.

"That boat, because it comes on line early, does a tremendous amount to mitigate that trough," Richardson told the Senate armed services panel.

On Tuesday, Defense Secretary Ash Carter testified before the House Armed Services panel on the 2017 defense budget request. While not specifically addressing a three-sub construction plan, he doesn't want the Navy to short-shrift one submarine program at the expense of starting another.

"The biggest issue we're going to face, beginning in the '20s, is the beginning of the Ohio class replacement," he said. "That can't be done at the expense of the rest of the undersea fleet or we will erode our dominance."

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