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ARLINGTON, Va. — The U.S. Navy moved closer to fulfilling its wanted fleet of Virginia-class submarines by the end of the next decade, thanks to a Monday announcement of a $14 billion contract awarded to defense industry titans General Dynamics and Northrop Grumman to build eight of the nuclear attack ships in the next five years.

The government’s buy is the third for Virginia-class submarines, calling for one new ship per year in 2008 and 2009, with two per year in 2010-2013.

Each submarine carries a 132-man crew within a 377-foot-long hull and 34-foot beam that displaces 7,700 tons of water, when surfaced.

Six have been built to date, with the christening of the New Mexico two weeks ago in Newport News, Va. Another four are under construction.

The ordered subs will have more than 100 design changes and fewer moving parts, most notably a modified bow that has multiple payload tubes feeding into only two vertical launch tubes for its 12 Tomahawk missiles, rather than the 12 tubes on earlier models.

Most features, such as the diving depth, torpedo load-out, and number of tomahawks, remain the same, said Rear Adm. William Hunter Hilarides, program executive officer for submarines, in a Monday briefing at the Pentagon. The new payload configuration of launching tubes frees up no space within the sub nor changes the crew size, he said.

With some of the submarines reaching $3 billion to construct over the past decade, in September 2005, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, who was then Chief Naval Officer, said the Navy would buy two Virginia-class subs each year if costs were cut by $400 million.

The new contract is the result of that challenge, said Hilarides.

Rear Adm. Cecil D. Haney, director of the Navy’s Submarine Warfare Division, said that today’s submarines are more versatile and needed in ways that the public cannot know.

"When you look at the versatility of the Virginia class, you really get it by stepping aboard" Haney said, noting features such as lock-out dive rooms to deliver special operations forces. "Having gone to sea out on several of them, the whole package is so incredibly different. The boat was designed post-Cold War and consequently it was designed so that it could operate efficiently from the shallows of the littorals to the deep ocean."


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