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Navy Confronts Anticipated Submarine Shortfall

Congressional lawmakers and Navy leaders said Thursday that combatant commander’s global demand for submarines far exceeds what is available or possible.

Existing or legacy submarines such as the Los Angeles-class fast-attack submarines are retiring at a far faster rate than new submarines can be added. The Navy anticipates a sizeable drop in the available submarine fleet over the next 15 years, service leaders told lawmakers Sept. 12 at a House Armed Services Committee Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces hearing.

“With the accelerated retirement of Los Angeles-class submarines, our nation will drop below the 48-boat goal starting in 2025,” said Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., chairman of the HASC Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces. “We need to ensure strategy drives our budget and that we give a voice to our combatant commanders. We need to be sure that we provide them with every resource.”

The Navy’s current fleet of 55 attack submarines, or SSNs, will drop down to 42, Rear Adm. Richard Breckenridge, director of undersea warfare said in written testimony . Four guided missile submarines, or SSGNs, will retire and the Navy’s current fleet of 14 Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines, or SSBNs, will drop to 10, Breckenridge wrote.

“The total submarine force will drop from 73 to 52 ships -- a cut of 29 percent – before rebounding in the 2030s. The vertical strike payload volume provided by the undersea force will drop by well over half. This trough is borne of the submarine shipbuilding hiatus of the 1990s, and no realistic build plan could now prevent it,” said Breckenridge.

In addition, there may not be enough funds to pursue continued development of several next-generation submarine programs such as the Virginia-class fast attack submarine and the Ohio Replacement Submarine program, a nuclear-armed replacement for the existing class of Ohio-class ballistic missile subs.

“We must stay underway with the advancements of our submarines and undersea warfare capabilities. With falling budgets and sequestration, we are concerned with how the Navy will be able to keep these programs on track,” said Rep. Mike McIntyre, D-N.C., ranking member on the subcommittee.

McIntyre explained that the defense budget for fiscal year 2014 includes more than $5 billion for continued construction of Virginia-class submarines as well as $750 million in research and development for the Ohio Replacement Submarine program.

According to budget projections and the Navy’s 30-year shipbuilding plan, the service will need an additional $4 billion per year above and beyond the established budget by 2021 in order to succeed in funding construction of the Ohio Replacement program, Navy officials confirmed.

This need is expected to parallel construction plans for the Ohio Replacement subs, so the Navy may need a special supplemental, or an addition $4 billion from Congress per year, for as long as 15 years.

Construction of the first Ohio Replacement program submarine is slated for 2021. However, advance procurement begins in 2019 and planning, research and development is already underway, service officials confirmed.

While outlining some of the details regarding how the Navy plans to address the large decline in fleet size and anticipated budget shortfalls, Breckenridge underscored the tactical and strategic advantages provided by undersea warfare technologies.

“Undersea warfare provides persistent undetected assured access far forward and the ability to deliver unique military advantages. By leveraging stealthy concealment, undersea forces can deploy forward without being provocative, penetrate an adversaries’ defense perimeter and conduct undetected operations,” he said.

Overall, the Navy has a series of steps designed to address the budget and submarine fleet size concerns.

“The Navy has developed an integrated approach to developing as much undersea capability as possible, yet within realistic constraints,” said Breckenridge.

The plan calls for the Navy to stay on track with the development of the Ohio Replacement program so that production can begin by 2021. In addition, the service wants to ensure that it continues to succeed with production and delivery of the Virginia-class submarines at a pace of two per year, Breckenridge explained.

The approach also calls for restarting torpedo production. In addition, the plan may wind up delaying retirement of some Los Angeles-class submarines in order to keep the fleet numbers higher while more Virginia-class attack submarines are being built and delivered.

Another key element of the Navy’s plan involves something called Virginia Payload Modules, or VPM, essentially an effort to add substantially more firepower to the Virginia-class submarine by 2019.

By adding a new, weapons-carrying module, the Virginia-class submarine will be able to go from 12 to 40 Tomahawk missiles. One advantage of the VPM is to help the service compensate for the expected retirement of the Ohio-class guided missile submarines, or SSGNs.

These are large, nuclear powered submarines which were converted from the standard Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarines equipped with nuclear weapons to conventionally armed subs with the same basic dimensions.

“Virginia Payload Modules will utilize the modularity and the flexibility inherent in the Virginia-class base design and reconstitute the SSGN (Ohio-class guided missile submarines) payload volume in a cost-effective manner,” Breckenridge said.

At the same time, Breckenridge emphasized that acquisition and ship building programs would be working vigorously to control and lower costs wherever possible. In fact, Navy leaders explained that specific vendor incentives and affordability strategies were inserted into the research and development contract with Electric Boat, a division of General Dynamics, for the Ohio Replacement program.

“This is the first time in a ship building research and development contract we’ve tied substantive incentive fees to cost reduction across the entire life cycle,” said Rear Adm. David Johnson, Program Executive Officer, Submarines.

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