Report: Sub Cuts Will 'Exacerbate' Problem Of Meeting COCOM Needs

December 14, 2009

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The Navy is preparing to tell Congress it will slash procurement of attack submarines in the coming years, worsening the problem of meeting combatant commanders' rising demands for subs and further undermining the long-term goal of maintaining a fleet of 48 attack subs, sister publication Inside the Pentagon has learned.

The planned cuts, which face resistance on Capitol Hill, are described in a draft of the long-term shipbuilding report the Navy plans to send Congress in February. ITP reviewed a copy of the draft, which is labeled "for official use only -- pre-decisional information -- not for release outside the Navy."

The draft plan's "long-term shortage" of attack subs "will exacerbate the problem of meeting COCOM demand for attack submarines," the report states.

The previous 30-year shipbuilding plan, sent to lawmakers in February 2008, said the Navy would buy two Virginia-class subs per year for much of the next three decades. It featured a two-sub-per-year streak from fiscal years 2011 to 2028 and thereafter alternated between buying one or two subs annually.

But the draft of the FY-11 plan would break that streak, buying one attack sub annually in FY-15 and FY-18 -- and from FY-23 onward, with the exception of three distant years. The plan would buy one attack sub annually for more than half of the 30-year period, reducing the projected size of the attack sub fleet.

The Navy has for years asserted it needs a force structure of at least 48 attack subs while acknowledging it faces a shortage of those subs in the outyears. But that inventory shortfall gets worse in the new draft plan. The previous plan said the shortage would span FY-22 to FY-33, bottoming out at 41 attack subs in FY-28 and FY-29. But the new plan extends the shortfall to FY-40 and reaches a new low of 38 subs in FY-30.

Since FY-04, combatant commanders have increased their demand for attack subs, according to the draft report. Although every COCOM critical mission requirement has been met, the number of attack subs has limited the Navy's ability to fulfill lower priority requirements, the report notes.

On Capitol Hill -- where sub manufacturers General Dynamics and Northrop Grumman have powerful advocates -- lawmakers are already complaining about the possibility the Navy will cut one of the 10 attack subs slated for purchase between FY-11 and FY-15.

In a Dec. 4 letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead, 36 House lawmakers -- including many members of the Congressional Shipbuilding Caucus -- voice "strong opposition" to the prospect of losing one sub in the five-year period covered by the FY-11 budget request, which is due to Congress in February.

Buying only nine subs between FY-11 and FY-15 would be a "significant step backwards" from clear congressional support for a sustained two-per-year build rate for attack subs, as well as from clearly defined needs within the submarine force and the U.S. industrial base, the lawmakers argue.

Members of Congress were already unhappy with the long-term sub shortage projected in the February 2008 report. The letter notes that in 2008 the attack sub force was "only able to meet a total of 49 percent of all missions requested of it -- and it will be asked to continue to do 'more with less' as the demand for their unique stealth and intelligence capabilities increases while force levels decline."

The letter presses the Navy to "reconsider any proposals" to reduce the sub build rate between FY-11 and FY-15 and "fully support a sustained two-a-year procurement rate" beginning in FY-11.

Such a policy is in the interest of long-term sub force structure requirements, the industrial base and the nation, the letter argues.

The Navy's draft report attributes the big changes to Virginia-class procurement plans to the roughly $80 billion cost of another sub program: the development of new SSBN(X) ballistic missile subs to replace Ohio-class subs that carry nuclear missiles. As ITP first reported Dec. 3, the report warns the cost of SSBN(X) could force big shipbuilding cuts and trigger industry consolidation unless the Navy receives more funding. But the report downplays the impact on GD's Electric Boat shipyard in Groton, CT, and Northrop's shipyard in Newport News, VA, the two facilities that build Navy subs. "The industry impact during those years will be offset by SSBN(X) construction," the report states.

To deal with the projected shortage of attack subs, the draft plan advocates a three-part strategy similar to the previous report.

"To mitigate the most severe aspects of this shortfall," the Navy has developed a three-part strategy that focuses on reducing the construction time for Virginia-class subs to 60 months (a goal the service hopes to meet with the submarine slated to be completed in FY-12), extending the service lives of certain Los Angeles-class attack subs and enabling the fleet to extend the deployment of Virginia-class subs beyond six months "for short periods when the need arises" to meet COCOM demands, according to the draft report.

"The ability to build the Virginias faster and get them out to the fleet is a big part of that," Capt. Michael Jabaley, the program manager for the Virginia class, told ITP Dec. 8.

He said the program could potentially reduce the sub-construction time beyond the 60-month FY-12 goal, but said no decision has been made.

"There is a point at which your returns diminish," he said. "We haven't defined where that is yet. . . . But if you try to shorten it significantly beyond that, you start compressing other things in the construction time line. And there are other things that we have to have the time for. The biggest one is for the crew to train and be ready to operate the ship in the test program."

The program could go below the 60-month goal but could not, for instance, go as low as 30 months, he said.

Jabaley said the Navy has a "good chance" of achieving the 60-month FY-12 goal with the Mississippi (SSN-782), which Electric Boat is building.

He also said the Navy is pursuing efforts to cut the program's total ownership cost and enable a new sub to have 15 deployments over its service life as opposed to 14.

"It's not the reduction of total ownership costs that helps you get additional deployments," he said. "It's the things you do to reduce those total ownership costs that allow you additional deployments." For instance, finding ways to extend the period between maintenance availabilities and shorten those availabilities can reduce costs while also providing more operating time over the life of the sub, he said.

Virginia-class subs are capable of being deployed for more than six months at a time as needed, but that is purely a fleet decision, he said. -- Christopher J. Castelli