Navy plan to build more subs could strain capacity at EB

U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Ronald Gutridge.

The Virginia-class attack submarine USS Texas at Pearl Harbor-Hickam.

Washington – The Navy’s plans to boost its number of ships and submarines would cost more than $100 billion a year and pose a challenge to the capacity of the nation’s shipbuilders, especially those building subs like Electric Boat, a new government report said.

In December, the Navy issued a new Force Structure Assessment, or FSA, that would boost the total number of ships and subs to 355, even more than the 350 President Donald Trump has proposed.

The FSA would add to the fleet one more aircraft carrier, 16 additional large surface combatants, four more amphibious warfare ships and five more support ships, as well as 18 additional attack submarines.

The new plan would not increase the number of planned new Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines that, like Virginia-class attack subs, are built by Electric Boat in Groton. The Navy’s plan would keep the number of Columbia-class subs at 12.

A Congressional Budget Office report, released this week, said a 355-ship fleet would cost 67 percent more than the $56 billion the fleet of 275 ships costs annually to operate today.

The report was requested by Reps. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, and Robert Wittman, his Republican counterpart on the House Armed Services  seapower subcommittee.

The CBO studied reaching the FAS objective in 15, 20, 25 and 30 years.

“Building more submarines to meet the goals of the 2016 force structure assessment would pose the greatest challenge to the shipbuilding industry,” the CBO said.

It concluded the objective of 66 attack submarines in the fleet in 15 years “is not realistic because the capacity of the submarine-building industry is limited.”

There are just two shipyards that build attack boats, Electric Boat and Newport News, which together produce two Virginia-class subs a year. But the shipyards also are beginning work on the much larger Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine. That will dramatically increase their workload, the CBO said.

Electric Boat did not provide an immediate response to the CBO analysis.

“The report definitely identified stress in the industrial base in the 15-year timeline,” Courtney said.

Reaching the goal of 66 attack submarines in 15 years would require building three attack boats a year from 2022 to 2024 and then four a year through 2028.

But Courtney said Electric Boat and Newport News could accommodate the pace of a 20-year timeline, which would boost production of the Virginia-class boats from two a year to three.

A longer timeline also would avoid a “cliff drop” in submarine production after 15 years, Courtney said.

Electric Boat has increased its workforce by about 1,000 in the last year, passing the 15,000-mark in employment this week.

“The hiring is still going smartly, and that’s going to continue,” Courtney said.

While the Trump administration and the Navy agree on the basics of fleet size, how to secure the money to pay for the rampup is unclear.

The CBO report was released as Congress struggles to pass an omnibus spending  bill that would fund the federal budget for the rest of the federal fiscal year, which ends on Sept. 30.

Trump wants to include a $30 billion boost in defense spending in that bill, which must be approved by the end of the week to avert a federal government shutdown.

The future of that defense supplemental – which would boost the number of F-35s and Sikorsky built helicopters purchased by the Pentagon this year – is uncertain.

The extra money for the Pentagon would bust federal budget caps set in law, and would require lawmakers to hammer out a new agreement to lift the limits with a deadline looming on a shutdown.

A $578 billion defense appropriations bill has already been passed by the House and would be included in an omnibus spending bill.

That bill would allow the Pentagon to purchase 63 F-35s, which are powered by Pratt & Whitney-engines and 36 Sikorsky-made Black Hawks and keeps the two-a-year pace of construction of the Virginia-class subs. The bill also would contain money to begin work on the Columbia-class sub.

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