Keeping the blogosphere posted on the goings on of the world of submarines since late 2004... and mocking and belittling general foolishness wherever it may be found. Idaho's first and foremost submarine blog. (If you don't like something on this blog, please E-mail me; don't call me at home.)

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Increased Submarine Buy Rate Urged

As expected, Virginia politicians and shipbuilding executives weighed in on the current defense budget by urging the Navy to raise their submarine construction request to two Virginia-class boats per year; Connecticut officials have been arguing the same thing. At the current buy rate of 1 per year, we'll see submarine numbers start to drop precipitiously in about 10 years, as the refueled Los Angeles class boats start to run out of hull life (normally 30-35 years). Will the increased buy rate happen? No, not this year, and probably not for a while. Unfortunately, submarine construction is one of those things that lawmakers outside the directly effected regions believe can easily be put off for the future. Expect to see a lot of hollering from the Virginia and Connecticut delegations, but no change in the plan.

Going deep...


Anonymous db said...

Much of the reason that CT and VA are left to fight for more subs is that the number of contractors from those regions represent a disproportionately high percentage of the total number of contractors participating in the project. Boeing and Lockheed have figured out that to receive Congressional support for your build, you need to “spread the wealth” across many more regions (spoken “districts”). Northrop Grumman and Electric Boat are still learning this lesson.

Additionally, Congress has gotten wrapped around the axle on (and Bubblehead will hate me for saying this!) – nuclear submarines. With the intermittent break in the Cold War, and the shifted focus to terrorism, there are a host of missions that modern diesel boats could perform: shallow water ops, running rabbit for tactical readiness evaluations, coastal patrols, drug interdiction, etc. At an approximate cost of $400 million per sub, four to five boats could be built at the cost of a single nuclear submarine. Operating cycle costs (maintenance, training, etc.) are significantly less for diesel-electrics, and the crew training and familiarization pipelines are of less duration. Additionally, a “nuclear” shipyard would not be required to build the boats, affording other shipyards to build submarines (which expands our industrial base). Lastly, the shipyards that do build submarines could actually export a product without giving away critical nuclear technology (although the weapons systems, sound silencing, and sonar capabilities would have to be “dumbed-down” for export). This could prevent the near annual debate over closing EB, when it is obvious that the Navy is not going to reduce itself to a single shipyard capable of building submarines (not only does it create a monopoly, but it makes an easy target for an adversary).

Unfortunately, EB and Newport News can be their own worst enemies. They don’t produce enough submarines to maintain proficiency in their industrial skills or to maintain their workforce (they hire to build a boat, lay-off workers until the next contract, rinse, and repeat), so the cost soars. They know they may not be building another one anytime soon, so they try to maximize profit on the current contract, again the cost soars. And because of this, it’s less of an assembly line like other defense products; every one they build is almost like doing it for the first time – which is an expensive process. The bottom line is that as long as EB and Newport News demand billions of dollars for a single item (the submarine), there will be a push to decrease the numbers being built.

3/01/2005 5:31 PM

Blogger Bubblehead said...

db makes some good points, but to be honest, I really don't think we (the U.S.) could build a diesel boat for even twice the $400M he mentions. A lot of the cost of a submarine goes into the sensors and various SUBSAFE requirements, which I don't think we'd be willing to give up.

3/01/2005 8:11 PM

Anonymous db said...

You're probably right about the cost -- few defense contracts (if any) actually end up being billed as initially proposed. The problem is that other countries are selling diesel-electric/fuel cell boats (often to our adversaries) in the price range I talked about. Check out the German 212A -- supposedly priced at $250M.

3/01/2005 8:52 PM

Anonymous Former NavET said...

I have to disagree with some of db’s points. First on EB or Newport News spreading the work out over a large number of contractors like Boeing or Lockheed, this is already being done. I recently saw some documentation on-line from one of the Congressmen (lost the link) bucking for a higher Submarine procurement level. The document listed a substantial number of submarine systems that were manufactured outside either CT or VA. These systems included some major components including the reactor plant, sonar systems, environmental monitoring and conditioning equipment, electrical systems, etc. I’d say at least 25 states outside of CT and VA make submarine components for the Virginia class boats. Also Shipbuilding is an order of magnitude greater is size, number of components and complexity than aircraft, tanks or any other single military platform, therefore much of the final assembly has to be done in one place. EB starting with the 688’s has done a great deal in modular construction of submarines. Entire hull sections including all structural and piping elements are fabricated at their Quonset Point RI facility and barraged to Groton CT for assembly.

Second point is the industrial skill set loss issue. Like any industry during slow time Shipyards try to retain their most skilled and senior engineers, managers and trades people. Although the shipyard may lose a significant part of their low-skill grunt workforce these people are easily replaced given the design to production and funding timeframes. Typically 10 years design to production and then 10 years funding of production.

Yes they could build submarines cheaper no question. But until the shipyards are given an economy of scale or a reduction in military standards for systems capabilities and performance I would suspect those savings would be minor in the big picture.

Former NavET (and Former EB yardbird)

3/01/2005 9:56 PM

Blogger Bubblehead said...

See my post above on more recent discussion on the nuclear vs. non-nuclear debate.

3/02/2005 10:05 PM


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