One of the favorite sayings in the news business is “if it bleeds it leads.” That is why car wrecks, natural disasters and government crises are always front page news. Good news stories are relegated to the inside pages or the second half of the news programs.
The same phenomenon is true regarding stories about defense programs. When the F-35 aircraft program had developmental problems it was front page news. Now that it is achieving all its test targets and demonstrating its capabilities, no one hears about it. The V-22 continues to get maligned in the media even though it is now the safest vertical lift system in the Marine Corps’ inventory.
One of these good news all-but ignored stories is the success of the Navy’s program to build the new Virginia class of nuclear-powered attack submarines. As each of these new submarines is launched — there have been seven so far — the time it takes to produce one and the cost have been reduced. In fact the price has been reduced so much that the Navy can now afford to buy two a year instead of just one. One of the key reasons for this change is because the government agreed to a multi-year purchase that allowed the submarine’s builders and their subcontractors to acquire long-lead items and plan their labor usage more efficiently.
The success of the Virginia-class program is all the more remarkable because the work is performed at two geographically-separated shipyards: Electric Boat’s facility in Groton, Connecticut and Huntington Ingalls’s in Newport News, Virginia. The logic of doing this was to ensure that the nation has the capacity, including skilled labor force, to ramp up its production of nuclear ships and submarines if necessary. Now the Navy can afford to procure enough of these state-of-the-art boats to maintain underwater superiority and meet current tasking.
As the Department of Defense enters a time of austerity, the program to build two Virginia-class submarines is more than a good news story. It is a model for how the Pentagon should approach procuring weapons systems.