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Navy may need to extend lives of attack subs

A projected shortfall in the number of attack submarines may force the Navy to examine whether it can extend the lives of some subs and keep them in the fleet beyond their scheduled retirements, a top Navy admiral told Congress on Wednesday. Vice Adm. John Blake, the service's top requirements officer, acknowledged that that the Navy's sub fleet will grow smaller than its own acceptable minimum, which could force it to look for ways to keep  boats serving longer.

But that may be difficult, cautioned a top naval analyst. Shipbuilding expert Ron O'Rourke of the Congressional Research Service, appearing after Blake before a panel of the House Armed Services Committee, warned lawmakers that it may be hard to extend the service of the Navy's fast-attack subs because of limitations on the lives of their pressure hulls. The Navy keeps its nuclear submarines in excellent condition, but the ships were built to meet exact tolerances and specifications, and it may be more expensive than it's worth -- or even impossible -- to keep submarines sailing for much longer than their planned lives.

Blake told lawmakers the Navy's projections showed its submarine force dipping to as low as 39 boats -- from 55 -- and that that could warrant "looking at the inventory and seeing what the best of breed is," and the possibilities of service life extensions. If that's not feasible, commanders also could look into scheduling longer deployments for the Navy's existing submarines, so they'd spend more time at sea and as such be available for more missions.

Blake also said the Navy was considering trying to add another attack sub to its long-term plan for fiscal 2018, a decision he said would be made next year. The submarine shortfall, which has been a reality for some time as part of the Navy's long-term planning, is a microcosm of its larger shipbuilding situation: The service wants to grow its fleet to at least 313 ships overall, but congressional analysts say it would need billions more dollars than it's likely to get in order to buy enough ships.

Meanwhile, the existing fleet continues to operate at a high tempo: According to the Navy's daily operational update, 26 submarines were underway away from their homeports on Wednesday and 21 of them were on deployment --  about a combined 86 percent of the fleet, according to the service.

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