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Could the Navy opt for a mini-boomer?

In certain quarters inside the Beltway, there's a prophecy as bleak as the Mayans' beliefs about the year 2012: In the not-too-distant future, the Navy's next-generation ballistic sub, SSBN(X), will become so expensive it'll swallow up almost every shipbuilding dollar the service has. A nuclear submarine is the most complicated machine ever built, more sophisticated than the space shuttle, as bubbleheads like to say, and building a new class from scratch to carry a brace of world-ending nuclear missiles could cost $70 billion or more. (Almost certainly more.)

But if the Navy tried to modify its existing Virginia-class fast attack submarines to carry Trident missiles, that might save a lot of money. This idea has been kicking around for years, and the Navy brass doesn't like it -- the Virginias weren't built for this job, they's require a different, smaller version of the missile than today's Ohio-class boomers carry, and building a new SSBN from scratch ensures no compromises in its ability to conduct its silent patrols for decades. The Navy hates it so much, in fact, that you might have been forgiving for believing the Virginia-boomer idea was dead. The Defense Acquisition Board even gave the green light to a new-design SSBN(X) last year.

However, it appears the mini-boomer idea survives. Marine Gen. James Cartwright, the outgoing vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, broached it during his breakfast meeting with reporters last week, which prompted the baring of fangs by America's submarine-builders up in Connecticut, home of the Electric Boat shipyard.

Here's how reporter Jennifer McDermott of The Day newspaper broke it down:

[Cartwright] told reporters in Washington last week that "nothing is off the table" as the Pentagon looks to cut at least $400 billion from the budget through the 2023 fiscal year, according to a transcript.

Instead of building the new ballistic-missile submarine, Cartwright said, the Navy could make the Virginia class of attack submarines longer so they could carry ballistic missiles, according to published reports from the meeting.

EB spokesman Robert Hamilton said he could not comment on the issue.

Connecticut Rep. Joe Courtney, the Democrat whose district includes EB and is an staunch submarine supporter on the House Armed Services Committee, tells McDermott the HASC has studied the Virginia-boomer idea and rejected it -- by the time you buy different Tridents to ride in the smaller sub, you don't get any real savings over SSBN(X), he says.

No way, argues America's most famous naval personality:

Norman Polmar, a naval analyst and submarine warfare expert, said he has been advocating for a smaller submarine based on the Virginia design for years because the replacement program, which he believes could add up to $100 billion with research, development and construction costs, is simply unaffordable.

The Virginia design could be enlarged to add a missile compartment so the submarine could carry about a dozen of the smaller missiles, for a cost of between $3 billion and $3.5 billion to build each modified sub, said Polmar, who has served as an adviser to several top Navy officials.

The highly capable ballistic missile submarine is certainly warranted, he said, but the Navy would have to compromise too many of its features to bring down the cost. The best solution is to build the modified submarine until the Navy can afford the proper ballistic-missile submarine, Polmar said.

It's hard to know what to make of it all -- if the Navy considers this a done deal, why is the vice chief offering up an alternative strategy on how to build this submarine? Rule number one of Washington is that no decision is ever final, so this may not be the last we hear of the mini-boomer. Show Full Article

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