WASHINGTON: Got subs? The Navy sounds increasingly confident it can squeeze an extra submarine into its construction plans. The additional Virginia-class attack sub, to be funded in the 2021 budget, would enter service just as the attack submarine force shrinks to historic lows while Chinese and Russian fleets grow in both numbers and sophistication.
The Navy had planned to cut back production of Virginias, which carry conventional cruise missiles and torpedoes, to make room for the much larger Ohio Replacement Program (ORP) boats, which carry nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles. Maintaining the nuclear deterrent for the worst case scenario takes top priority — but attack submarines are in high demand every day. The growing threat of nuclear-armed great powers increases the need for both kinds of boats. It’s a painful tradeoff the Navy would rather not make.
Now new Navy studies suggest the shipyards — Electric Boat in New England and Newport News in Virginia can keep building two Virginias a year, the current rate, even as they start building the first “boomer” in 2021. As Ohio Replacement production ramps up after 2021, however, keeping up two Virginias a year will become harder.
“We’re confident from everything we’ve looked at so far that we can add that second one in ’21 with it only being a benefit,” Rear Adm. Michael Jabaley, the Navy’s Program Executive Officer (PEO) for submarines, told reporters this morning after a talk at the Center for Strategic & International Studies. Keeping momentum on attack sub production would be “a benefit to the Virginia program, a benefit to the overall (submarine-building) enterprise as a whole, and it won’t detract from the construction of that first Ohio Replacement hull.”
“A harder look is now being done at the remaining years,” Jabaley continued. [CORRECTED: As the pace of the Ohio Replacement Program picks up, it becomes harder to wedge in Virginias as well]. After the first ORP sub is built, Jabaley said, “we take a two-year gap, then we build the second (Ohio Replacement) hull, then a one-year (gap), then it’s one per year thereafter.”
“We believe that there would be additional facilities required to be built to allow the shipbuilders to continue two (Virginias) a year” after 2021, Jabaley said. What’s unsettled is how much those facilities would cost and who would pay.
The Numbers Game
In the face of growing great-power threats, the Navy is currently conducting an in-depth study of how many ships it requires to meet operational demand. It’s the first bottom-up Force Structure Assessment since 2006, when China and Russia were both fairly friendly. That 2006 analysis called for a fleet of 308 vessels, including 48 submarines — but both those numbers will probably go up.
“That makes…the second Virginia in ’21 even more important,” said Rear Adm. Charles Richard, director of undersea warfare (section N97) on the Navy staff. “That single ship takes about 30 percent of that trough in terms of submarine-years.” Currently, the Navy has 53 attack subs, but, by 2029, that figure will drop to 41 — well below the old requirement of 48, let alone any new and higher number.
“This is nothing that we can fix at this point,” said Jabaley. No foreseeable budget can build new subs as fast as the Reagan buildup boats retire, and the Navy can only extend the old boats’ service lives on the margin. But an additional sub entering service at the right time can make the decline less steep. And because that decline is worst in the 2020s, an additional boat in the early 2020s is more valuable than one before or after. Said Jabaley, “one of the most important ships is that second Virginia in 2021.”