A virginia-class attack submarine General Dynamics Electric Boat
A Virginia-class submarine
A Virginia-class submarine General Dynamics Electric Boat

Washington – Navy officials have said they will consider moving up the date for the start of a new Virginia-class submarine program that would allow the boats to carry more firepower.

About 20 Virginia-class submarines, built jointly by Electric Boat in Groton and Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia, would have their hulls lengthened by about 70 feet to accommodate the so-called Virginia Payload Module, allowing the subs to carry 28 more Tomahawk cruise missiles than the Virginia class subs under construction now.

Right now the Navy has planned construction of the first Virginia Payload Module for 2019. The new design is needed to provide more undersea strike capability as the Navy prepares to retire Ohio-class guided missile submarines in the mid-2020s.

At a hearing of the House Armed Services seapower subcommittee on the Navy’s budget Wednesday, Connecticut U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, asked if the schedule for the Virginia Payload Module could be moved up.

“I just wondered if you have any thought about possibly trying to accelerate that process?’” Courtney asked.

Sean J. Stackely, assistant secretary of the Navy in charge of acquisitions, said the Defense Department is already trying to determine if the Virginia Payload Module subs could be built sooner. He asked lawmakers to “give us a couple of months to come up with” a decision.

“The earlier we can do so, the better for our nation,” Stackley said.

Stackely said the Navy must determine how quickly the module’s design could be completed and whether Electric Boat and Newport News Shipbuilding could begin building the boats earlier than planned.

Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., told Stackely, “We don’t have a couple of months” to wait for the Navy’s decision because lawmakers are concerned about a “gap” in the Navy’s firepower.

“If you can narrow that scope down, it would be very, very helpful to us,” Forbes said.

Stackely and other Navy officials also talked with lawmakers about the impact of across-the-the board spending cuts known as sequestration and other reductions in the Navy budget.

Vice Admiral Joseph Mulloy said the Navy’s budget has been cut by $25 billion over the last three years.

“We have the minimum necessary to be where it matters when it matters,” Mulloy said. “We are hanging on; we are making do.”

The Navy’s 2016 budget contains money to build two Virginia-class submarines. But that budget — and the rest of the proposed federal budget sent to Congress by the Obama administration last month — does not take into account the impact sequestration cuts, which are still in effect.

Most lawmakers, both Democrat and Republican, want to eliminate sequestration, across-the-board cuts established in the Budget Control Act of 2011 because lawmakers could not agree on a way to control spending. Partisan differences over spending priorities continue to foil all attempts to end sequestration.

Ana has written about politics and policy in Washington, D.C.. for Gannett, Thompson Reuters and UPI. She was a special correspondent for the Miami Herald, and a regular contributor to The New York TImes, Advertising Age and several other publications. She has also worked in broadcast journalism, for CNN and several local NPR stations. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Journalism.

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