Here’s a paradox from the world of naval shipbuilding. The Navy’s need to begin development of a new ballistic-missile submarine in 2012 virtually guarantees that the Virginia-class attack sub will stay in production through 2025 — even though Virginia has been disqualified as a candidate for the ballistic-missile mission. Conventional wisdom has it that when the Navy tries to buy too many classes of warship at the same time, something ends up getting squeezed out of the budget. In the case of the Virginia class, though, the opposite will happen. The boat will need to stay in production longer than originally planned, because scarce technical talent will be too tied up designing the new ballistic-missile sub to begin work on a Virginia replacement.
Aside from a handful of specialized undersea warships, the Navy operates two types of submarines: ballistic-missile submarines that provide secure retaliatory forces in support of nuclear deterrence, and smaller attack subs that collect intelligence and carry out a diverse array of combat missions (like anti-submarine warfare). The fleet of ballistic-missile subs currently consists of 14 Trident boats, each carrying two dozen long-range missiles. The attack-sub fleet consists of older Los Angeles-class and Seawolf-class boats, plus the newer Virginia class. The Navy had planned to buy 30 Virginia-class boats, and then shift to a more capable successor. But that would require tapping technical communities to design a new attack sub, and right now those communities look likely to be fully absorbed in designing the Trident replacement during the coming decade. So the Navy will probably have to buy 40 Virginias at the rate of two per year before a successor attack sub becomes available.
The Navy is planning to ramp up production of Virginias from one boat to two boats per year beginning in fiscal 2011. The ramp-up is overdue, because cold-war-era Los Angeles attack subs will soon begin retiring from the fleet at the rate of three or four per year. As those retirements progress, the number of attack subs in the fleet will decline to a mere 43 in 2028 — barely half the number that the Navy operated during the Reagan era. That may not be enough to cover the world, given the amount of time taken away from operational missions for maintenance, transit and training. But because the Navy waited so long to ramp up construction of attack subs and the design of a Trident replacement can’t be delayed, it will have to keep the Virginia class in production for many more years — at the rate of two per year — to prevent attack-sub numbers from falling even lower than 43.
That’s one reason why the service has decided to add back money for a second Virginia that was missing from the shipbuilding plan in 2015: any slowing in the rate of attack-sub production drives the size of the future fleet below 43 boats, which is too low to meet global commitments. In theory, a further drop could be avoided while still developing a Virginia-class replacement as planned. In practice, though, the submarine design community can only design one class of vessel at a time, and each design takes at least half a dozen years to complete. With Tridents likely to become even more important to nuclear deterrence in the years ahead, timely development of a replacement ballistic-missile sub has first claim on the design community. So it’s a safe bet that Virginia-class attack subs will still be under construction 15 years from now, because it will take that long to get through the Trident replacement project and then move on to developing a new attack sub.
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