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Navy eyes extended SSN deployments


Waste, delays, cancellations, drama, heartache -- does DoD do anything right in the world of acquisitions? In the eyes of many people, yes: The Virginia-class fast-attack submarine is considered to be a rare bright spot of efficiency and economy. The boats arrive on or ahead of schedule, and on cost, and although the Navy has made some sacrifices of its own to get to that point, service officials are very proud of the program.

But even at a planned rate of two new Virginia-class boats per year, the Navy can't add enough attack boats to take up the extra work now borne by its current fleet. As AP's Michael Melia wrote, the sea service may ask its silent service to plan for attack sub cruises that last an extra month -- seven, up from six -- to accommodate all the missions at hand.

Wrote Melia:

Extending deployments permanently would save resources because the Navy could complete more missions with the nuclear-powered submarines that it has available. The fast-attack subs travel to far-flung corners of the globe for missions including intelligence gathering and firing missiles, but they can maintain a presence only for so long before making the time-consuming journey back to U.S. bases. Navy contractors began stepping up submarine production this year, but pressure on the defense budget has raised uncertainty about future procurement. While some critics describe the multibillion-dollar vessels as costly relics of a different era, Richardson says submarines remain integral to America's nuclear deterrence strategy and the security of a nation that conducts the vast majority of its trade by maritime channels.
He continues:
Beyond the strain on sailors and their families, U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney said, the longer deployments reflect an increasingly acute security problem. Although Navy contractors received approval this year to double production of Virginia-class attack subs to two a year, he said that will only slow the decline in the size of the fleet and will not fully replace older ships as they are taken out of commission. The number of nuclear-powered attack submarines in the U.S. force has fallen from a peak of 98 in the late 1980s to 53 at the end of fiscal year 2010, a decline that roughly matches a drop in the overall size of the Navy since the end of the Cold War. Each Virginia-class attack submarine costs about $2.6 billion and carries a crew of roughly 135 officers and sailors.

Courtney, who is pushing for an increase in attack sub procurement, said they are unmatched in their ability to deliver firepower and do surveillance without being detected.

"Look at Libya. When President Obama said `unique capabilities,' what he was really referring to was the USS Scranton, the Providence and the Florida, which in a matter of an hour obliterated Gadhafi's air defenses," said Courtney, a Democrat whose eastern Connecticut district includes the sub base and the Groton headquarters of the Navy's primary submarine contractor, General Dynamics' Electric Boat.

Currently, the submarine force can accommodate only about half the support requests from combatant commanders, according to [Vice Adm. John] Richardson, who said sub deployments are currently extended a month or more to meet demands on a case-by-case basis. He noted that surface ships also face extended deployments, as all branches of the military contend with increased demands.

Depressing -- even the Navy's most successful shipbuilding effort isn't enough to make ends meet, given today's high operational tempo. This is the sort of thing for which the long-sought grand strategy might be helpful: If the Pentagon decided to make some of the much-discussed "tough choices" among the things that are "on the table," maybe officials could find ways to reduce the demand on ships and their crews. Or maybe DoD could elect to free up the cash to build the number of submarines it needs.

What do you think?

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