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Is the Price Right for Navy's Sub Replacement Program?

Courtesy U.S. Navy
The Navy’s current Ohio-class subs, above, are set be replaced by new ballistic missile submarines. But the price tag for the new subs is so high — an estimated $5.4 billion per vessel — that building them could eat up funds for other ships.

The price tag is so high on the subs — an estimated $5.4 billion per vessel after the first one — that building them could crowd out funding for other ships the Navy is counting on to reach its overall fleet size target.

“We pit two equally important strategic instruments of power against each other, which is just, you know, an inappropriate friction,” Rear Adm. Richard P. Breckenridge, the director of the Navy’s Undersea Warfare Division, told the Seapower panel last week.

To emphasize the stakes involved, he told the pro-Navy panel that if the sea service received only half of the $60 billion shortfall, or roughly $2 billion extra annually over a 15-year period, it “would be required to cut from our other general purpose forces, four attack submarines, four large surface combatants ... and another eight combatants.”

If the Navy received no supplemental funding, 32 warships would fall out of its inventory.

Under the Navy’s current 30-year shipbuilding plan, it would take more than two decades to reach its goal of 306 ships; it’s aiming to have 282 ships in fiscal 2014.

The service receives about $13 billion a year for shipbuilding — well short of what is needed to reach the Navy’s goal, according to Forbes and other experts.

This problem grows acute around 2021, when the Navy expects to begin producing the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine replacement, a vessel the Navy had hoped to pay about $4.9 billion each for in fiscal 2010 dollars, after the first of its class is built. Right now, the Navy projects the actual cost of those boats to be about $500 million more than that.

The Navy is able to persuade authorizers of the need because ballistic missile submarines represent about 70 percent of the nation’s nuclear weapons deterrent. They are also the most survivable — some say invulnerable — leg of the nuclear weapons triad, which also includes ground-based and air-launched nuclear weapons.

“But, $60 billion in the grand scheme of the Department of Defense budget represents less than 1 percent,” Breckenridge said. “So what we’re looking at is, do we have the will as a nation to be able to identify less than 1 percent of the budget, to go ahead and commit it to this 15-year recapitalization commitment without having an adverse impact on the rest of our general shipbuilding force?”

Strong Navy Support

Rhode Island Democrat Jim Langevin, a member of the Seapower panel and in whose state General Dynamics Electric Boat has a location, said he is untroubled by the Navy’s plans. In fact, he acknowledged that the panel writ large is sympathetic to the Navy’s case.

“It’s the Navy’s job to tell the nation, to tell the leadership of the country, from the president to Congress, what the nation’s military needs are and it’s up to the Congress to come up with the funding,” he said.

Langevin said that over the next 10 years, he hopes Congress will have put its fiscal house in order and invested wisely to help create jobs and tax revenue to put the economy and the military in a better financial position.

Langevin said, however, that while the military would grow leaner over the next 10 years, the Navy should be shielded from severe cuts.

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