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The Navy's next boomer

The Navy’s top submarine planners are confident they can build a new class of ballistic missile boats on time and on cost, without swallowing up the service’s entire shipbuilding budget. But to get there, they admit, everything has to go perfectly.

Capt. Dave Bishop, program manager for what the bubblehead community now calls “the Ohio-replacement,” – not “SSBN(X),” – gave the Naval Submarine League a detailed brief on his long-term plans on Thursday outside Washington. Although surface-dwellers still debate whether the Navy should “stretch” its Virginia-class attack submarines to build a new class of boomers, the sub force is treating a whole new boat as a done deal, and Bishop’s work has been quietly progressing underneath the surface.

In fact, for Bishop’s purposes, almost everything is settled: He is planning a class of 12 newly designed, newly built ballistic missile subs equipped with 16 tubes apiece, down from the 24 aboard current Ohio class. The new boomers’ tubes will be able to accommodate the Navy’s existing arsenal of Trident D-5 nuclear world-enders, augmented down the road with a life-extension program. The new subs also would be able to handle a theoretical new missile of tomorrow. (More on that later.)

The detailed design work for the lead ship will begin in 2015; construction would get underway in 2017, with the start of assembly of the missile compartment; then major work on the boat itself would begin in 2019. Figure about seven years for full assembly, then add time for a shakedown availability, test missile shots for both Gold and Blue crews, and the first Ohio-replacement boomer could take its first deterrent patrol in around 2029, Bishop said.

During the construction phase, Bishop said the Navy wants to build the first boat in about 84 months, as compared to the 86 months it took to build the first-in-class fast attack sub USS Virginia.

“That means we need to get everything right,” Bishop said. “We can’t afford to over-expend on anything.”

So he wants to borrow as much as possible from the Virginias and have as much design work finished as possible before the serious work gets underway – sounds like common-sense ideas, but the Navy does not always adhere to them. Specifically, Bishop wants engineers to finish about 60 percent of design work before major construction.

“We have to get that right, now,” he said. “There is no more room to slip funding or schedule and not impact my 2019 start. So we have to stay on target.”

What does it all mean? Same as always: Money. The Navy hasn’t designed a new submarine class in decades, and it hasn’t designed a new ballistic missile submarine since the 1970s. That means a lot of “non-recurring engineering costs” for the original work to design and build the first ship, plus the costs to build the next 11 and operate and sustain them all.

Naval observers worry it could cost so much money the Navy might not have any left over to build the other ships it wants – and will need as its 1980s-vintage cruisers and destroyers begin to leave the fleet in large numbers. The Navy’s top logistics officer, Vice Adm. Bill Burke, acknowledged it’s still a common fear, and also that there are voices inside the Building that want to delay or even cancel a new boomer to afford other ships.

“It’s a bitter pill because none of us want to see the Navy get any smaller,” he said. “There are people telling me, ‘Hey Bill, that’s a great idea.’ There are still people out there who believe we’re going to wreck the shipbuilding plan with the Ohio replacement.”

Burke said he doesn’t agree; he thinks the Navy can prioritize and balance all its programs. Service officials and some congressional allies tried for a time to pay for a new boomer with another part of the federal budget, arguing that the new SSBN was a national strategic asset, not just a Navy toy. But that case does not seem to have won many converts.

Bishop’s numbers tell the story: He anticipates the first ship will cost $4.5 billion to plan and design, then $6.8 billion to build, for a total overall cost of about $11.3 billion. He believes the follow-on boats will cost about $5.6 billion apiece. But Bishop thinks he can use “government improvements” and “shipbuilder improvements” to get that follow-on cost down, to around $4.9 billion per copy.

Add up that roughly $700 million per-ship reduction over all the follow-on submarines, and Bishop’s goal is to reduce the overall cost of the program from about $62 billion to around $54 billion, in fiscal 2010 dollars.

What if he can’t? What if, as in some Navy shipbuilding programs, there are delays and overruns in the class until about the third or fourth hull? What if congressional dysfunction means the Doomsday Device is triggered, or lawmakers allow the U.S. to default on its debt? Well, that’s not allowed to happen. And it’s just best not to think about the state of the surface force in the 2020s.

Bishop was not glum about his prospects – he talked eagerly about the plan to use modular construction to build the new submarines, which he said would save time and money. Robots will do a lot of the welding and assembly of the Ohio replacement’s missile tubes, for example. By comparison, when human welders built the USS Ohio’s missile tubes, the work was so hot and dangerous that they couldn’t stay on the job for more than 30 minutes at a stretch, Bishop said.

All this time, money and effort will be worth it because it will yield the best ballistic-missile sub in the world, Bishop said. The boats will have 159 racks for 155 planned crew members, meaning sailors won’t have to share. And they’ll have a comparatively spacious boat, about the same length as the Ohio -- some 560 feet -- despite its eight fewer missile tubes, and bigger: Planners want the Ohio replacement to displace some 19,700 tons, according to Bishop’s presentation, as compared with the Ohio’s 18,700-ton submerged displacement.

“It’s becoming a real life submarine,” Bishop said, promising another update at a future sub conference. “Hopefully next time we’ll have a little bit more detail along the way.”

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