Submarine construction cost must continue to fall, admiral says
Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)
NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — The Navy admiral overseeing submarine construction said Thursday that if the price tag for building the newest vessels remains where it is today, there will have to be cutbacks to the Virginia-class program.
Newport News Shipbuilding and General Dynamics Electric Boat, along with the Navy, have already brought down the cost to build Virginia-class fast-attack subs and are in the process of doubling their production, from one sub a year to two.
But when another program to replace the nation's aging fleet of Ohio-class ballistic missile subs ramps up, there won't be as much money to go around.
"I don't think we get Virginia and Ohio replacement at the same time if we don't continue to press down on the cost of Virginia and keep pressing on the cost of Ohio replacement," said Rear Adm. David Johnson, who spoke to reporters at the Naval Submarine League's annual symposium just outside of Washington, D.C.
A number of speakers at the event talked about the program – now entering the design phase – to replace the country's 14 Ohio-class subs, which carry nuclear missiles and are meant to serve as deterrents.
The boats, called Boomers or Tridents because of the missiles they carry, have a 42-year lifespan and are scheduled to start retiring at a rate of one per year starting in 2027. They are the larger and pricier cousin of the Virginia-class, and the Navy has a cost target of $4.9 billion for each of the 12 replacement subs it plans to buy.
The first replacement sub is scheduled to set out on its first patrol mission in 2031.
The Ohio class was built by Electric Boat, and the newest of the subs, the USS Louisiana, was commissioned in 1997.
Electric Boat won the design contract for the replacement class. Newport News Shipbuilding has expressed interest in the past in having a role in the construction program.
"We are going to build Ohio replacements, so it's really are we going to keep capitalizing the (Virginia-class) force, which desperately needs these ships to build our war-fighting requirements," Johnson said.
The cost to produce a Virginia-class sub is about $2.9 billion in 2016 dollars. Johnson said that number has to come down further, noting that the cost of shipbuilding has outpaced that of inflation in recent years.
Matt Mulherin, president of Newport News Shipbuilding, said he expects the cost of Virginia-class submarines to drop as the program moves forward, which would allow the Navy to avoid a cut-back.
"As you continue to build more and more ships, with every ship you get smarter, you develop a familiarity," said Mulherin, who was attending the symposium.
"And doubling the production rate will help," he said.
To help meet the goal of delivering two subs to the Navy a year, the shipyard recently built a $100 million facility to build large submarine modules.