2017 budget includes $8.1 billion for submarine programs

By Julia Bergman | The Day, New London, Conn. | Published: February 13, 2016

NEW LONDON, Conn. (Tribune News Service) — President Barack Obama's request includes $8.1 billion for submarine programs, about $1 billion more than last year.   

The president's budget provides continued support for the construction of Virginia-class attack submarines.

The two-a-year build rate will continue from 2017 until 2021, when it drops down to one with the expected start of construction on the lead boat of the Ohio-class replacement program.

Current plans for the program call for 12 nuclear missile submarines to replace the aging fleet of "boomers" — ballistic missile submarines — built in the 1980s and 1990s.

The president's budget includes $13 billion for that program over the next five years.

Fiscal year 2017 is the first that money is being put into the Navy's shipbuilding account for the program. Previous money spent on ORP was from research and development funds.

In the coming budget debate, U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, will continue to push for the National Sea-Based Deterrence Fund, which he and other lawmakers have advocated for in recent years as a way to pay for ORP outside of the Navy's shipbuilding account. 

The fund was established in the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act, which also authorized the transfer of unobligated funds of up to $3.5 billion from fiscal years 2014 through 2016 into the fund.

The 2016 NDAA expanded the fund to allow the transfer of any Department of Defense funds, not just Navy funds, and the transfer of unobligated funds from fiscal year 2017 in addition to the aforementioned fiscal years, multi-year procurement and incremental funding.

Courtney said he has a good case to make after the Congressional Budget Office late last year estimated that about $10 billion could be saved by using the fund.

Courtney, and other advocates, have said the separate fund would relieve constraints on the regular shipbuilding account, that otherwise would have to squeeze out a huge portion of the Navy's shipbuilding plan over the next 30 years.

Total cost estimates for ORP range from $70 billion to $100 billion.

The Navy estimates boats two through 12 will cost $5.7 billion, but is working to get that cost down to $4.9 billion. CBO is estimating that each of those boats will cost $7 billion.

The higher estimate is due to the inclusion of research and development and advanced procurement figures.

About $11.8 billion in total is expected to be spent on research and development for ORP, more than half of which has already been spent with the remaining R&D funds planned over the next five years.

Last year, $7.2 billion was approved for submarine programs.

That includes $5.3 billion for two Virginia-class submarines a year and future year procurement funding, $971 million for ORP, and $167 million for the Virginia Payload Module, a 80- to 85-foot-long module intended to provide additional payload capacity to future Virginia-class submarines.

The Navy buys submarines in "blocks," and the contract for the next block of Virginia boats, Block V, is expected in 2018, with construction taking place between 2019 and 2023.

One boat in that block is expected to have a VPM in fiscal year 2019, and two boats in fiscal year 2020.

U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, highlighted the increasing importance of submarines to our national security, particularly considering what's going on elsewhere in the world.

"We are seeing today an operational pace from the Russians that we have not seen since the end of the Cold War ... We are now seeing them move places that they have not moved in a long time and do it with greater acuity than they have in a long time. They're in a major submarine building program and we have to pay attention to it," Murphy said.

He pointed to the recent deployment by the Chinese of their "first true" ballistic missile submarine, the Jin class. 

If you compare ships in the Pacific between the Chinese fleet and the United States fleet, Murphy said, "we are outnumbered today."

"We are going to be dramatically outnumbered 10 to 15 years from now," he continued.  

Murphy and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., held a roundtable Friday at the office of the Marine Draftsmen's Association-United Auto Workers Local 571 to talk about what needs to be done to cultivate the skilled workforce that EB will need.

The continued support for submarines is good news for Electric Boat.

The company expects to have a total workforce of 18,000 by 2030 compared to the 14,000 employees it has today.

"Where are we going to find them?" Blumenthal asked.

"We have to attract them and train them," he said. "That's going to be a challenge for all us. Our vocational state schools, our community colleges are all going to have to gear up in this area to meet that challenge."

Since 2010, EB has hired 4,000 people, "and to go up another 4,000 in the rest of this decade for us, we think, is a pretty exciting but doable challenge," Maura Dunn, the company's vice president of human resources, said.

The company has made a lot of investments internally, Dunn said, including creating a new position — filled by Patrick Reuss — director of staffing and recruiting, "which is evidence of our own efforts and investment to try to make it easier for people to apply to us and make sure that once people actually understand the opportunities available we can quickly help them get into a training program that leads them to a middle class job."

Right now, the company is focused on hiring trade workers.

The company will look to secure more maintenance and modernization work such as the $46 million contract awarded to EB in May 2015 to overhaul the USS Montpelier, which is the major driver behind hiring in 2016.

The company expects to hire 800 employees in Groton this year.

The challenge is to continue to bring in this kind of maintenance work, Dunn said, "to sustain those shipbuilders so that in the time period we begin construction of the Ohio-replacement class we have a five-year shipbuilder and not a one-year shipbuilder."


©2016 The Day (New London, Conn.)
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