To a casual observer, the drumbeat of negative news about naval shipbuilding must make it sound as though the entire fleet modernization program is in disarray. The Navy Secretary canceled contracts for a new class of littoral combat ships designed to operate close to shore, and wants to change the way the warships are being bought. After spending billions of dollars to develop the next-generation Zumwalt class of destroyers, the service says it intends to build only three vessels and then revert to production of the earlier DDG-51 Aegis destroyer. And even though future aircraft carriers and amphibious ships promise to be the best ever built, media coverage of those programs tends to be dominated by concerns about costs and technical challenges.
There is one shipbuilding program, however, that is not just meeting but exceeding all its objectives in terms of time and cost. This is the Virginia-class attack submarine. Although only four submarines have been built, the program is already delivering them eight months ahead of schedule while reducing costs by a half billion dollars per boat. The efforts to reduce costs have led to innovative design work that improved both the way the Virginia-class is being built and the capabilities of the finished product. This program has been so successful that starting in FY 2011, the Navy can afford to build two submarines every year.
What makes this story even more amazing is that each new submarine is being built at two shipyards: Electric Boat in Groton, Connecticut and Newport News in Virginia. The submarines are built in several large segments and then joined together. The teaming arrangement between Electric Boat and Newport News is working well and contributing to the cost reductions. The Virginia-class is so well built that they are fully mission capable upon leaving the shipyard, something unheard of with previous classes of attack submarines.
The Virginia is the first new ship class delivered with post-Soviet requirements. It is designed to support Special Operations forces. The ship control system is fly-by-wire for better depth control and hovering capability. This allows improved handling in littoral waters. It has a more robust sensor suite than its predecessors and eight mast holes, two for the new photonic masts and six that are mission configurable. Even now, the Virginia-class carries weapons for a variety of missions. In the near future this could include unmanned undersea vehicles, anti-aircraft missiles and ballistic missile defense systems.
The Virginia-class is the right ship for an era of strategic uncertainty. Yes, it can address the unconventional warfare threat. But that is not the only potential challenge that the U.S. may face in the decades to come. China is producing two new classes of nuclear-powered attack submarines. Russia is pressing forward with its own advanced attack boat. Both countries also are building modern diesel-electric submarines and Russia has sold some to Iran. The move to a build rate of two Virginia-class submarines a year is not only a matter of fiscal responsibility, but one of national security too.
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