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Cost Cutting the Super Sub

The Navy's submarine force is in trouble. A shrinking number of boats is struggling to meet steady demand from regional commanders. Meanwhile, the cost of the only U.S. submarine currently in production, the super-high-tech Virginia-class attack boat, has risen to $2.3 billion apiece. At that price, the Navy can afford to buy only one per year. Do the math: since attack boats last only 30 years, building one boat per year means your fleet is eventually going to shrink to 30 boats from the current 55. Long-range plans call for 48 attack subs, so how is the Navy going to get there?virginia.jpgSome observers have called for the Navy to start production of new, smaller and cheaper boats, perhaps even diesel-electrics rather than nukes. But the long ranges that U.S. boats must travel, their need for big hulls (for mission flexibility) and the strong pro-nuke culture of U.S. submariners means diesels aren't a realistic option.Plus, no U.S. shipyard has built diesel boats in more than 50 years, so where would you get them from? Germany? Sweden? Both countries build fine diesel boats, but Congress ain't likely to go begging to these reluctant allies for cheap submarines. No, nukes are where it's at, and nukes never come cheap. The Navy wants to buy two Virginias per year to sustain fleet numbers, but it refuses to do so unless the price drops to $2 billion. The two U.S. submarine manufacturers -- Newport News and Electric Boat -- want the work, but can they knock $300 million off the Virginia's price?Aviation Week has run a story on efforts to trim Virginia's cost:The most effective way to lower the per-hull price of Virginias, by more than $150 million apiece, is a more efficient build rate to distribute overhead costs and increase learning efficiencies, according to [Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Ships Allison] Stiller, Vice Adm. Paul Sullivan, head of Naval Sea Systems Command, and Rear Adm. Charles Hamilton II, program executive officer for ships. An additional $25-$80 million in savings is possible through a "reallocation" between the shipbuilders, they said.A second story goes into detail:Seven capital-expenditure (capex) projects have been approved or are in development to help General Dynamics Corp.'s Electric Boat and Northrop Grumman Corp.'s Newport News slice costs off the Virginia-class submarine program, Navy Rear Adm. William Hilarides said April 17. ...Five capex efforts have been approved, including a light fabrication project at Electric Boat's Quonset Point shipyard. There also is a centralized coating facility there, and Electric Boat has a module transportation project underway as well. For its part, Newport News has a modular outfitting facility and has upgraded its horizontal machining center. ...Meanwhile, the boat's bow design will be simplified under new design work already budgeted and should be implemented in the FY '10 sub, Hilarides said. The design will move sonar hydrophones and the vertical launching system, but it will not affect any expected capabilities. ...Nevertheless, Hilarides said the Navy would consider removing the special forces' lock-out chamber on the Virginia boats if capabilities had to be cut. Other options include using passive instead of active sonar and a classic propeller instead of the "propulsor," which provides more stealth, he said.The lock-out chamber in question allows SEALs to exit and enter the sub while it's submerged. If the chamber goes, the subs lose much of their special operations capability -- one of their major selling points. If this happens, the U.S. Navy won't be the first sea service to surrender submarine-based special operations. This year, on cost grounds, the Royal Navy retired its only sub with a lock-out chamber.--David AxeUPDATE: 9:59 AM: Speaking of commando-carriers, the star-crossed, $446 million mini-sub known as the "Advanced SEAL Delivery System" has finally been sent to Davey Jones' locker. But I hear SOCOM is still going to have to pay through the nose for the one System that's actually (kinda, sorta) working.UPDATE: 11:39 AM: "I've been on USS Virginia, and, trust me, her ability to deploy SEALs and their gear is not severely compromised by the proposed removal of her special nine-man commando lock-out chamber," says Joe Buff, who knows a thing or two about subs. "One could, in extremis, make the case that this new chamber is redundant."

Like every U.S. Navy nuclear submarine in service, the Virginia-class also has at least two conventional lock-out chambers, otherwise known to the crews as escape trunks. While these escape trunks are smaller that the new-style lock-out chamber, and thus it takes longer for a full SEAL team to depart or reenter the sub, the existing trunks are perfectly functional for launching undersea commando missions. SEALs have used them quite successfully on American SSNs for many years. In addition, much of the SEALs' equipment is brought along externally, in a pressure-proof Dry Deck Shelter (DDS), a piece of equipment that has also been around for years and which the Virginia class is fully equipped to carry. A DDS can hold the latest mod of SEAL Delivery Vehicle (SDV) underwater scooter, or inflated rubber boats with milspec muffled outboard motors. While the failure of the ASDS project is a definite disappointment, SEALs are a hardy and adaptable breed. Again, they can get the job done, riding to and from their target the old-fashioned ways. As a case in point, the early-flight Los Angeles-class USS Dallas, still in commission, has been dedicated to supporting SOCOM ops in the Global War on Terror, with a very high op tempto and a great record of effectiveness. (I've been on her recently, too.) Her "special" warfare equipment? Conventional lock-out escape trunks, and a DDS on her back.
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