The Lexington Institute has published several essays on the seldom-discussed subject of submarines and intelligence. The Navy’s nuclear-powered attack subs have a rapidly growing role in the collection of both tactical and strategic intelligence. Because this growth was not fully anticipated, the Navy now has too few subs to meet all of its mission requirements. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff says the Navy will need 20% more attack subs than it has today to meet mission needs in 2015, but between now and then a quarter of existing subs will be decommissioned.
This implies the need for a vigorous submarine construction program over the next 15 years averaging around two boats per year. Even if older subs can be refueled to extend their lives, they won’t have the capabilities of the new Virginia-class of subs. The JCS Chairman says at least 18 of the subs needed in 2015 should have Virginia-class capabilities.
Since the Virginia-class is the Navy’s only remaining submarine construction program, there is no escaping the need to continuously build such vessels for the foreseeable future. The nation’s two sub yards – Electric Boat and Newport News Shipbuilding – have agreed on a division of labor for each boat that minimizes disputes over where work should be done. Dividing responsibilities saves money by eliminating the need to maintain all skills at two sites while preserving the option for future competition.
But there’s another step that needs to be taken to save money: Congress needs to approve purchase of a block of ships, rather than authorizing one or two new ships every year, so that contractors can plan their labor and material needs efficiently. As the chart below shows, attack subs are extremely complex. Being able to plan a smooth production flow from year to year should save millions of dollars per boat. There’s no reason to forego a block authorization, because continuous production is the only way to meet projected military requirements.
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