I Know! Let's Design Cheaper Subs!
The House added language to the 2006 Appropriations Bill today urging the Navy to design a lower cost submarine for the future, the so-called "Tango Bravo" option. The things people are saying reminds me a lot of the debate that went on in the 90s when they decided to cut the Seawolf class in favor of the design that became Virginia.
"The Navy would need to come up with a radically cheaper alternative to the Virginia-class of submarines within nine years, under a provision that recently sailed through the U.S. House of Representatives.
"The nuclear-powered sub would have to "meet or exceed the war-fighting capability of a Virginia-class ship," do so "at a dramatically lower" cost, and be ready to begin construction by 2014, according to language in the House version of the 2006 Defense Department Authorizations bill...
"...The House's new sub design initiative grows out of concerns in Congress that the Virginia-class boats are too expensive to buy two a year. Getting to at least two sub purchases a year is urgent if the Navy expects to keep pace with the forthcoming retirements of many Los Angeles attack subs. Electric Boat and Newport News, under contract to build the first 10 Virginia-class subs, have struggled to contain costs. Though the vessels have received good reviews from Navy sailors and brass, the subs have in some years eaten up nearly a quarter of the Navy's shipbuilding budget.
"The price tag for the first four boats in the group - the Virginia, Texas, Hawaii and North Carolina - has grown to $11 billion, or $2.75 billion a vessel, Navy figures show. That's up 17 percent from the estimates six years ago."
Up 17 percent since 1999; that's actually not too bad. However, I recall that back in 1996, when I first reported to the Connecticut, "NSSN" proponents were saying that each new ship of what would become the Virginia class would cost only $1.5 billion; this was one of the main reasons for cutting off Seawolf production. Now, we see that each is costing over $2.2B (the $2.75B number above is not really accurate; the first boat of a class normally said to cost about twice as much as similar follow-on boats), it looks like the main justification of switching from Seawolf to Virginia is kind of, well, gone.
What the Navy needs to do is come up with a design and stick with it; both the Los Angeles and Ohio class submarines have shown the advantages of such an approach. As much as I make fun of Viriginia's, they're good boats; but, if we end up cutting the program short, we still have the same problems of needing a supply chain to provide for a smaller class of boats that busts your maintenance budget -- like we're seeing now with the Seawolfs. To be honest, the main groups that benefit from a decision to design a new class of boat are the shipyards and their R&D units. I'm glad we'll be keeping these talented professionals around, but at what cost?
As much as I hate to say it, the least costly option would be to restart the LA production line. Sure, they're cramped, but they're still better than anything any potential adversary will have for the foreseeable future...