By LINDSAY OLIVIER
NORTH KINGSTOWN – This year marks the first of a five-year plan in which General Dynamics Electric Boat (EB) is scheduled to build two Virginia class submarines per year as part of the strategic emphasis on the Asia/Pacific region but the recently released Future Years Defense Plan (FYDP) calls for the purchasing of just one submarine in 2014 and that’s something Congressman Jim Langevin (D-RI) calls “troubling”.
“While the budget maintains the two-ship level in every other year, I’m concerned by the department’s recommendation to delay the purchase of one submarine in 2014. By slowing down production, it jeopardizes jobs and the cost-savings already achieved,” Langevin said in a telephone interview this week.
EB’s two locations–one in Quonset and the other in Groton, Conn.–handling the bulk of the building of the vessels, which are purchased in five-year blocks, along with Huntington Ingalls-Newport News Shipbuilding. The next block begins in 2014 but the U.S. Navy is proposing to take the second ship slated for 2014 and move it to 2018.
One of the reasons for eliminating the second submarine is that the “full funding” method utilized by the Navy required too much up-front cost. Another reason includes the growing national deficit. Langevin says he understands this, but is working to educate Congress about the benefits of the Virginia Class Submarine and find ways to get it funded.
Langevin spoke to Admiral Robert Willard, head of the Navy’s U.S. Pacific Command, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Under Secretary of Defense Robert Hale last month and no one is disputing the highly efficient capabilities of the submarines.
“I agree that the Defense Budget must be closely scrutinized as we work to address our deficit and I’ve advocated other cuts,” added Langevin. “But the submarines are not a waste or excess. We’re only now beginning to reap the rewards of an aggressive cost management effort.”
Panetta said that if there are cost efficiencies that can be achieved that will allow the Navy to purchase the second submarine with savings and in a more cost effective way, they’re prepared to look at that.
The impact of moving that submarine could include increased supplier costs. According to EB spokesman Bob Hamilton, if suppliers can’t be guaranteed the two ships per year, then more often than not, they’ll raise their prices.
The impact on inflation will also be a factor. What would have cost the Navy a certain price in 2014 could significantly increase come 2018.
“Another factor is our workforce,” said Hamilton. “It takes between 800 and 1,000 employees to build the submarines at both of our locations. So if that one ship is taken out of the equation, there’s no question we’ll have to eliminate that amount of workers.”
Though the Navy tells EB what to build and when to build it, the company has informed them of their concerns of taking away the second submarine.
Still, there could be a potential way to fund the second submarine. According to Sean Stackley, Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development, and Acquisition, an incremental funding mechanism could allow the military to afford the boat. Stackley made sure to bring this up during a March 29 hearing on oversight of naval vessel acquisition programs, held by the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces.
Another advantage to having a two-submarine-per-year program is that parts can be ordered in bulk which saves million of dollars. Even though 2014 is still a few years away, Langevin said it’s unclear how this will affect EB.
“We need to be mindful of this situation. A new building has been built to accommodate the two per year as well as hiring many workers. The question now becomes if we can’t get funding for this submarine, how will EB handle it?”
For now, Langevin says he will continue to press the Navy to find other options.
The Virginia class is the first U.S. Navy warship designed from the keel up for the full range of mission requirements in the post-Cold War era. The submarines play a key role in the nation’s defense with their stealth, firepower and unlimited endurance.
Included in a $4.2 billion contract awarded by the Navy in 1998, a $8.4 billion multiyear contract awarded in January 2004 and a $14 billion multiyear contract awarded in December 2008, Electric Boat is sharing construction of the first 18 ships of the class with its teammate, Huntington Ingalls-Newport News Shipbuilding. Electric Boat delivered the lead ship of the class, Virginia (SSN774), on Oct. 12, 2004.