Navy Hits a Snag in Replacing Subs

The Navy has hit a big bump in its bid to replace its Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines, and no one appears sure how to get back on track.

A funding gap in one of the several agencies involved in developing the new submarine's reactor means the program could be delayed for about six months, officials fear, a problem they don't need in a program they say must execute crisply against its budget and schedule in order to reach the fleet on time.

The problem is a shortfall of more than $150 million in the Energy Department budget that could cause a stoppage in work developing the new submarine's nuclear core, says Adm. John Richardson, director of Naval Reactors.

Richardson has warned the House Appropriations Committee's energy and water subcommittee that the shortfall means his agency must shut down a research reactor, defer training and postpone making key purchases it needs to keep the process on pace. Navy officials acknowledged to the Senate Armed Services Committee this week that as of today, they do not know whether they can recover that six months down the line.

"This is a problem for us," said Vice Adm. Joseph Mulloy, the service's top budget officer. He said he and other leaders have approached the White House Office of Management and Budget and the Defense Department's comptroller to see what they can do. Under law, the Navy Department can't just write a check to the Energy Department to cover the difference in the reactor development, Mulloy said. Plus, the relationships between the two agencies and among their vendors are very delicate, so they must think through any potential changes.

"It's a very intertwined area, so we need to be careful about one fix in one thing that could have tremendous unintended consequences about the full spectrum of our relationship with the nuclear industry," he said. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), whose home-state General Dynamics Electric Boat shipyard will play a central role in developing and building the new ships, said he was frustrated that what he called "a drop in the bucket," in the context of a $93 billion program, caused such problems.

"Doesn't this point out a weakness in the entire authorization or appropriations process to potentially put the entire Ohio-replacement class at risk because of this anomaly, or this idiosyncrasy, in budgeting?" he asked. Mulloy didn't disagree. He said the way nuclear warships are financed and built has origins all the way back to the 1946 Atomic Energy Act, and an irritated Blumenthal said he believed it might be time for Congress to make revisions to keep the submarine on track.

"I'm aware there's a long history here - I'm looking at it from a taxpayer standpoint," he said. "I assume you'd agree we need the Ohio-class replacement; we need it on time; and hopefully, under-budget as our [Virginia-class submarine] has done. And I'm not meaning to put you in defense of a procedure that is anomalous and irrational, but that's maybe something we need to change?" The Navy told POLITICO in a separate statement that it's "actively working" on the problem and that the Ohio-class replacement remains its top acquisition priority. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert said as much this week at the Navy League's Sea-Air-Space Exposition show outside Washington - in fact, he said it three times, a data point other admirals then quoted to drive home the significance of the sub program.

Top submarine officials say nearly everything must go right between now and the first sub's planned patrol in 2031, when it would replace the fifth submarine in today's Ohio class. If the new ship isn't ready, the U.S. would fall below the minimum number of nuclear missiles it must keep on station as part of its deterrence mission.

"It really is a today issue," said Rear Adm. David Johnson, the program executive officer for submarines. The Navy wants to field an Ohio-class replacement with major leaps in nuclear submarine technology, including a new electric drive system, for example, and a reactor core that will last the life of the ship. Current-model subs must be refueled midway through their service lives.

The science involved with a life-of-ship reactor is "astronomically mind-staggering," as Rear Adm. Rick Breckenridge, then the Navy's submarine warfare boss, told POLITICO last year. Commanders say it'll pay off, however, in savings and efficiency.

French Women To Crew Ballistic Missile Sub Fleet

The French Navy plans to send three women officers to sail in the ballistic missile submarine fleet, a first for the French service, Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said April 15.

“The Navy chief of staff has decided on a trial basis to assign three women officers to a crew on the ballistic missile submarine fleet from 2017, following a selection of volunteers this year and after a training course starting in 2015,” Le Drian said in a speech on women’s equality and a fight against harassment in the military services.

Le Drian made his remarks as he set out a plan to act against sexual harassment in the services. The approach will be “zero tolerance,” and is based on an official report the minister commissioned last month in response to a book, “The Invisible War,” which set out the difficulties encountered by women in the French armed forces.

While women entered the Navy college relatively recently in 1992, they now account for almost 14 percent of staff in the service, he said.

A posting of women to the submarine fleet reflects the Navy chief’s commitment to raising the level of female personnel while broadening the operational aspects, he said.

Concerns over health and personal security rather than discrimination lay behind the previous policy that avoided assigning women to submarines, Le Drian said. Posting women to the undersea fleet requires attention to the accommodations, detailed studies and a strong will, which the service has undertaken.

“This trial exercise, which is highly symbolic, allows laying down the foundation for a long-term crewing of women on French submarines,” Le Drian said.

The French decision follows in the wake of the US and British navies, which respectively assigned women to their submarines in 2010 and 2011, afternoon daily newspaper Le Monde reported.

Almost 60,000 women work in the French defense sphere, comprising 40 percent of the civilian side and 15 percent of the military side, Le Drian said.

The French armed forces have one of the highest levels of female staffing, compared with the British and German services, “which only respectively have 10 percent and 9 percent women in their ranks,” he said.

“For each and every one of us, that is a great source of pride,” he said.

The French Navy’s nuclear missile submarine fleet has four boats of the Triomphant class, each designed to carry 16 M51 strategic missiles.

The E-6 TACAMO Enables America’s Nuclear Deterrent

Equipped to each carry two dozen multiple-warhead Trident II ballistic missiles, the Navy’s 14 Ohio-class submarines comprise the most survivable part of the U.S. nuclear deterrent. But those subs would be nearly useless without E-6 Mercury TACAMO (“Take Charge And Move Out”) airplanes, which support communications between the submarine force and national command authorities. Since the submarines cannot effectively accomplish their missions without E-6 planes, the U.S. needs to ensure it maintains a modern fleet of aircraft to provide submarines with the ability to receive orders.

Ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs in naval nomenclature) are designed for stealth – to remain undetected — as they roam the world’s oceans. To remain unnoticed, Ohio-class submarines have sound-reducing features, such as insulated propulsion systems and machinery mounted on vibration-damping mounts. The mobility of SSBNs and the 4,000 nautical mile range of the missiles they carry enhance deterrence against a nuclear assault by assuring Washington has enough weapons and delivery systems post-attack to launch a credible second-strike.

The U.S. Navy operates the E-6 Mercury, the airborne portion of the TACAMO communications system, to ensure survivable communication links between decision makers and the fearsome power of Ohio subs. This aircraft receives, verifies, and retransmits Emergency Action Messages to U.S. strategic forces by communicating on practically every radio frequency. The planes are able to connect with all relevant players in the event of nuclear warning, from ground forces all the way up to Air Force One.

To converse with the SSBN fleet, the E-6 uses Very Low Frequency (VLF) radios and a Long Trailing Wire Antenna. The Trident missiles are assigned targets through secure and constant radio communications links at sea. The E-6 TACAMO is also designed to serve as backup if the Global Operations Center, the nexus for United States Strategic Command, is ever destroyed or incapacitated.

Boeing recently upgraded all Mercury aircraft to the E-6B configuration with added battle staff positions and other specialized equipment. The E-6B is currently undergoing a Service Life Extension Program designed to prolong the useful life of the E-6B to 2040. To abide by the 2011 New START Treaty, the U.S. will eliminate four launch tubes from each of its 14 SSBNs beginning in 2015 — each sub will have 20 functional launch tubes instead of 24 by the end of 2016. Moreover, SSBN(X), the future submarine program to replace the aging Ohio-class vessels, is expected to only have 16 launch tubes on 12 new submarines – further reducing missile numbers by subtracting four more launch tubes per vessel and eliminating the existence of two subs altogether. These future reductions in the strategic force mean that the U.S. must maintain the power of its nuclear deterrent in the future with fewer warheads and delivery systems.

Subs play an especially critical role in nuclear deterrence because they carry over half of the U.S. nuclear warhead arsenal. The E-6 Mercury is an example of a program that enables the strategic triad as a whole and submarines in particular to be effective. Since the total number of deployed nuclear warheads and submarines will decrease in the future, the U.S. must at least ensure it provides a modernized TACAMO program to enable the reduced submarine force to communicate effectively. Without an assured means of communication, the strongest leg of the nuclear triad may become the weakest. Upgrades and modernization implemented as a result of this program must maintain the aircraft’s connectivity and survivability. It is a frightening thought that without a successful E-6 Mercury TACAMO program, Washington would not be able to communicate with over half of its nuclear arsenal.

Submarine in Missing-Jet Hunt Has Covered Half of Search Area

An unmanned submarine hunting for a missing Malaysian aircraft has covered half of a targeted underwater search area as it starts its eighth mission in the Indian Ocean today.

The Bluefin-21 is diving within a 10-kilometer (6-mile) radius of an area where signals were detected on April 8 that may have been emitted by one of Flight 370’s black boxes, said the Joint Agency Coordination Centre, the Australian agency set up to oversee the operation from Perth. The Australian Maritime Safety Authority has also planned a visual search of about 48,507 square kilometers, it said on its website.

The submarine has failed to find “contacts of interest” after completing its seventh dive overnight, according to the JACC. It’s expected to end its current mission in five to seven days, the agency said yesterday.

At 44 days, the hunt for the Malaysian Airline System Bhd. (MAS) jet, which disappeared March 8 with 239 people on board, is the longest for a missing passenger plane in modern aviation history. The Boeing Co. 777 was enroute to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur. As many as 11 military aircraft and 12 ships were combing for debris off Western Australia today.

The Bluefin-21’s side-scan sonar is pivotal to the search for wreckage because the batteries in the aircraft’s black boxes have probably expired. Four audio pulses from the crash-proof recorders were detected from April 5 to April 8. The submarine, which bounces sound waves off the ocean floor to create images of the seabed, is designed to be deployed for 24 hours at a time. Its first foray was cut short when a built-in safety feature forced a return to the surface after it dived deeper than its operating limit of 4,500 meters.

A second attempt was interrupted by a battery malfunction, according to Jim Gibson, the general manager of Phoenix International Holdings Inc., the contractor performing the search. The software has been adjusted to allow the submarine to go deeper, the JACC has said.

Submarine Vet: You Can't See Us, But We're Out There

As a member of the Navy Submarine Force, Dave Alters spent September 1989 to January 1990 under the polar ice cap. He also spent two six-month tours in the Adriatic Sea as part of Operation Sharp Guard, on surveillance and collecting intelligence during the time of the Kosovo. conflict. Operation Sharp Guard was a NATO operation to stop blockade runners. “We would listen for large pleasure craft and relay the information to ships that could stop and search them for contraband,” Alters said.

Alters recalled an incident when his sub was tied to a ship off the shore of Turkey; a storm came up, and the ship was bobbing up and down in the water. “Men were on the submarine deck trying to untie the submarine from the ship. We had to get loose so we could dive. I could see water pouring into the hatch. The ship cut the lines to set the submarine free, our men got in, and we spent the next eight hours going backwards because we were afraid the lines would tangle in our propellers,” Alters said. “When daylight came, we surfaced and saw the lines were gone.”

“You are always aware of the danger.”

The Navy has lost two nuclear submarines, the USS Thresher in November 1963 and the USS Scorpion in May 1968. On another dive, the equipment to level the ship out was jammed and the sub continued to go down. One of the men crawled uphill and manually operated the equipment to stop the dive.

After basic training at Great Lakes Naval Station in Illinois, Alters went to submarine school for six weeks and then studied electronics for two years.

“We are in the middle of the ocean, so you have to know how to operate and fix the equipment,” Alters said. The submarine, the USS Groton, a Los Angeles class fast attack, was 360 feet long and 33 feet across and had 115 enlisted men and 15 officers. The men are given a battery of psychological tests before entering the submarine force.

When Alters, who is 6 feet, 4 inches tall, got on the submarine he learned to walk with his head to one side. His first 60 days on board was spent working to qualify as a submariner. Along with learning all the systems on the submarine he spent his time washing dishes and being a waiter.

“The space is limited so the men come in and sit down. They are served on real plates. There isn’t any space for men to be getting up and walking about,” Alters said.

“We slept on bunks called racks and they were called hot racks because there was two racks for three men. One man got up to go on watch and the other went to sleep,” Alters said. “Since being under the water there is no light to know the difference between night and day, we worked 18 hour-days, six hours on watch and 12 off. During the time off we had to eat, do maintenance and repair on our equipment and maybe play cards.

“When I qualified as a submariner it was the proudest moment of my life. It ranks right up there with my marriage and the birth of my children,” Alters said. “When you qualify it means you have the confidence of the crew. At any given time there are only 9,000 submariners on the 70 submarines in the fleet. For instance every air craft carrier has 5,000 men.”

To serve on a submarine the men must have a secret clearance but because Alters was a radio man, who would see the messages the captain would see, he had a top secret clearance.

In addition to being a radioman, Alters was also the maneuvering watch helmsman and the battle station helmsman. “It is like flying an airplane — you control speed and direction. I loved both jobs and I enjoyed the pressure and the challenge. It meant the captain had great confidence in my ability,” Alters said.

To send and receive radio messages the sub must come up to periscope depth every eight hours. The officer of the deck scans to be sure all is clear and then raises the antenna so they can send and receive messages.

“Our time under water was only limited by food, because we made our own oxygen and water,” Alters said. During his time in the Navy Alters visited many countries but two weeks in Israel was the highlight. “I went to Jerusalem and Nazareth and on Christmas day I was at the Church of the Nativity. It was the best place to be ever. I have never forgotten it,” Alters said.

“I often think of the submariners, particularly on holidays. They are out there, under the water, protecting our country and no one knows they are there,” Alters said.

Alters, 44, lives in Franklin Township with his wife, Kelly, and two children.

How to Steal a Submarine: Call the CIA and Howard Hughes

Ever have a hankering to steal a submarine — maybe a sunken Soviet model loaded with nuclear warheads — but you just weren't sure how to do it?

Well, you're not alone. After a Soviet Golf II submarine carrying four-megaton nuclear warheads and a crew of 70 sank in the Pacific Ocean in 1968, the Soviet Navy failed to locate the vessel despite several months of searching. That's when the U.S. government, keen on getting classified information from the sub, started its own search. But to cover its tracks, the government first enlisted the help of eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes, according to recently declassified CIA documents.

At that point, the story of the missing submarine starts to sound like the plot of a James Bond film. In fact, the tale did inspire a 007 movie, 1977's "The Spy Who Loved Me," according to the Houston Chronicle.

Declassified CIA documents

Recently declassified Cold War-era documents from the CIA detail the history of the sub expedition. The secretive search and attempted salvage of the sub was given the code name "Project AZORIAN."

Shortly after the Soviets abandoned their search effort, the U.S. military found the sunken submarine resting on the ocean floor more than 3 miles (5 kilometers) beneath the waves, in a remote area about 1,500 miles (2,300 km) northeast of Hawaii.

But how to retrieve the sub? After extensive research, CIA engineers and scientists decided to build a huge mechanical claw, tethered to a gigantic ship through a trap door in the hull. The claw was designed to plunge to the ocean's floor, snag the nuclear submarine and bring it to the surface.

It gets weirder: Once snagged and lifted toward the surface, the sub would be captured by a mammoth barge with a retractable roof. Devised to be submersible, the barge could capture and hold the sub beneath the waves to avoid detection by enemy spies. There was just one problem with Project AZORIAN: It's not easy to hide an enormous floating recovery operation, and any obvious salvage efforts in the area would arouse the suspicions of the Soviets, who had an obvious interest in keeping their nuclear secrets locked in a watery grave.

Hughes to the rescue

Enter Howard Hughes: The United States selected the oddball industrialist and engineering wunderkind to front the effort and deflect any suspicions that the government was involved.

As explained in a 1974 memo to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger: "Mr. Howard Hughes … is recognized as a pioneering entrepreneur with a wide variety of business interests; he has the necessary financial resources; he habitually operates in secrecy; and his personal eccentricities are such that news media reporting and speculation about his activities frequently range from the truth to utter fiction."

Sure enough, the gambit worked: Breathless news reports about the ship, dubbed the "Hughes Glomar Explorer" (or HGE), enthused about the operation, which was reportedly an effort at deep-sea mining, according to io9. "The race is on to exploit mineral riches that lie in the deep," The Economist magazine gushed, according to io9. And in 1974, the HGE succeeded in retrieving a chunk of the Soviet submarine, but the remainder of the vessel broke away when the giant hook failed to operate as planned.

News is leaked

Things got even worse for Project AZORIAN when rumors began to swirl about what was going on in the Pacific, and investigative journalists started asking questions about the project — and the government's involvement.

Finally, in 1975, the Los Angeles Times and other major news outlets published stories about the operation after a break-in at a Hughes subsidiary in Los Angeles, during which several boxes of classified documents were stolen, including those describing the sub salvage.

Kissinger soon recommended scrubbing the operation: "It is now clear that the Soviets have no intention of allowing us to conduct a second mission without interference," he wrote in a memo to President Gerald Ford. "A Soviet ocean-going tug has been on station at the target site since 28 March, and there is every indication that the Soviets intend to maintain a watch there." With that, after several years and $800 million, Project AZORIAN was abandoned. The HGE was sold to a drilling company, and by all reports, the Soviet sub still sits quietly at the bottom of the ocean.

The Five Best Submarines of the Cold War

History’s three great submarine campaigns include the First Battle of the Atlantic, the Second Battle of the Atlantic, and the US Navy’s (USN) war against Japanese commerce in World War II. The contestants fought these campaigns through asymmetrical means, with submarines doing battle against aircraft and surface escorts.

But the greatest true submarine campaign never (or only intermittently) went “hot.” Waged with advanced, streamlined submarines, hunting each other from the polar ice cap to the Eastern seaboard, the Cold War undersea “game” lasted for over three decades. In case of real war, these submarines would safeguard (or destroy) NATO’s trans-Atlantic lifeline, and would protect (or sink) much of the nuclear deterrent of America, Russia, Britain, and France.

So what were the best submarines of the Cold War era? For the purposes of this list, we’re excluding ballistic missiles submarines [8] or boomers, which have an entirely different mission from attack boats, built for different requirements. Instead, this list will focus on submarines optimized for killing surface ships or other submarines. The criteria should be familiar from previous lists [7]; to what extent did the vessels perform its strategic mission at a price that its nation could afford?

Cost: Submarines compete with other providers of national security. If they break the bank, they risk crowding out the other capabilities that a nation requires for its defense.

Reliability: When submarines have accidents, the results can be catastrophic. And showing up is half the battle; boats stuck in port can’t fulfill national objectives.

Effectiveness: Could the submarine do the job? How did it stack up against its contemporaries?

Permit Class:

Large, fast, and quiet, the Permit class set that standard for American and British submarines for the rest of the Cold War. Developed with a series of innovations that set them apart from their predecessors, the Skipjack class, the Permits immediately became state of the undersea art. These innovations included powerful bow sonar, a streamlined, deep-dive capable hull, and advanced quieting technology. Among the first submarines conceived an optimized for an anti-submarine mission, the Permits could threaten not only the Soviet deterrent, but also the Russian capacity for disrupting the trans-Atlantic lifeline.

The first of fourteen Permits entered service in 1961, the last in 1968. Most of the boats served through the end of the Cold War. Displacing 4200 tons, the Permits could make 28 knots, and could fire both advanced torpedoes and Harpoon anti-ship missiles.

The lead ship of the Permit class was Thresher, commissioned in 1961. On April 10, 1963, she was lost with all hands while conducting a diving test. The tragic loss of Thresher, which imploded after a still-disputed systems failure, overshadowed the long careers of the rest of the class [9]. However, that loss was critical to developing the safety standards that would prevent future accidents. The loss of Thresher, in a very important sense, led to the long history of safety success in the USN’s submarine fleet.

Swiftsure Class:

The United States and the Soviet Union were the main players in the Cold War submarine campaign, but were hardly the only entrants. The Royal Navy, initially with some US assistance, developed a series of lethal nuclear submarine designs, eventually making a more than creditable contribution to NATO’s undersea posture. One submarine, HMS Conqueror, remains the only nuclear submarine to have destroyed an enemy ship in anger.

Following up on the Churchill class, the Swiftsures were of innovative design, both in terms of hull technology and propulsion. They were the first full class of submarines to employ pump jet technology, which made propulsion more efficient while reducing noise. The enlarged but simplified hull redistributed machinery allowed a much deeper diving depth than previous Royal Navy subs. Displacing 5000 tons submerged, the Swiftsures could make some 30 knots submerged. They carried standard torpedoes, as well as Harpoon and (in some boats) Tomahawk cruise missiles. The six Swiftsures entered service between 1973 and 1981, with the last decommissioning in 2010.

The Swiftsures had their problems, including a series of bizarre accidental collisions, some structural failures, and some minor reactor troubles. Nevertheless, they served the Royal Navy very effectively against the Soviets, and would have won victories in the Falklands if the politics had played out differently.

Type 209:

Not every navy can afford an advanced nuclear attack submarine. Nevertheless, submarines solve strategic problems, and not every great submarine needs to be a Porsche. The German Type 209, first built in 1971, served as the strategic answer for a great many navies in the Cold War, and continues to serve today.

For obvious reasons, German submarine development stalled at the end of World War II. Although the Type XXI set the standard for post-war boats, legal restrictions prevented both East and West Germany from building any submarines in the first decade of the Cold War. After a series of designs that ran from non-to-moderately successful, HDW developed the Type 209 class for export. A diesel-electric, the Type 209 displaces between 1200 and 1800 tons (depending on variant), and can make 23 knots submerged. It can launch both torpedoes and anti-ship weapons, such as the Harpoon. The basic hull design has proven remarkably flexible, spawning a series of variants specialized for different tasks. The Type 209 gives small navies a viable anti-submarine option, as well as the capacity to threaten the surface forces of much larger, more powerful fleets.

Since 1971, 61 Type 209s have entered service with thirteen navies. 59 of those boats remain in service, with two more scheduled for delivery to Egypt in 2016. The ability of the Type 209 to remain in service in so many different fleets, often in widely varying maintenance conditions, attests to the robust nature of the initial design.

Project 949 (Oscar):

The Oscars were the apogee of the Soviet cruise missile submarine, a type that began with the Echo and continued with the Charlie. The first Oscars entered service in 1981,and immediately presented a serious challenge for Western naval planners. Designed specifically for anti-shipping attacks, these subs could strike NATO carrier groups with P-700 Granit missiles from a range of up to 300 miles. This widened the area that American anti-submarine vessels needed to patrol, and meant that attacks could come from unexpected vectors. Equipped with a conventional warhead, the Granit could easily cause a mission kill. With a nuclear warhead, it could give a carrier battle group a very bad day.

And the Oscars were huge. Displacing 16500 tons, they could make 32 knots submerged. They carried 24 Granit missiles, in addition to a bevy of torpedo launched weapons.

The United States and the United Kingdom would eventually adopt the same practice as the Russians, although instead of dedicating specific sub types to cruise missile launches they would focus on converting missiles for launch from conventionally designed nuclear attack subs. Later boats in the Los Angeles class would carry dedicated cruise missile silos, technically making them SSGNs instead of SSNs, although the designation never changed in practice (until the conversion of four Ohio class boomers to the cruise missile mission). The real utility of cruise missiles has been land attack rather than naval attack, as cruise missiles launched from US subs have proven quite effective in several recent conflicts.

The Soviets completed only five Oscars before the end of the Cold War, and another eight after. One, the Kursk, was lost in one of the most horrific accidents in submarine history. Several others, however, remain in service with the Russian Navy.

Shchuka-B (Akula):

The United States enjoyed technology and designs advantages for most of the Cold War that allowed its submarines to operate much more quietly than their Soviet counterparts. US technological innovation and industrial practice made it possible for the USN to develop and maintain submarines with advanced noise-suppression technology. The USSR’s tried to answer through raw weight, both in terms of size and number of boats.

Soviet espionage also tried to even the score. The fruits of the Walker spy ring and the Toshiba-Konigsberg scandal spread across several classes of Soviet submarine, but the Akulas benefitted most of all. The Akula’s were the first Soviet submarines to compete with American submarines on noise, reportedly matching the Los Angeles class at most speeds. Displacing 8000 tons, the Akulas could both outrun and outgun the American Los Angeles class, making up to 35 knots and carrying a larger array of torpedoes and cruise missiles.

Steel hulled (unlike their Sierra and Alfa predecessors), the Akulas also achieved cost-savings while improving mission capability, a rare feat for a modern weapon system. Five Akulas entered service before the Cold War ended, with a total of fifteen eventually entering service. Nine remain in Russian service, with another on loan to the Indian Navy.

US Navy Orders 10 New Subs for Record $17.6B

The US Navy announced a record $17.645 billion contract Monday to build 10 new SSN 774 Virginia-class nuclear-powered attack submarines. The order assures prime contractor General Dynamics Electric Boat and chief subcontractor Huntington Ingalls Newport News Shipbuilding of submarine orders through 2018.

The fixed-price incentive multiyear contract for 10 Block IV subs provides for two ships per year over the five-year period, each yard delivering one sub per year. The two shipbuilders share equally in a teaming arrangement to build the subs, with each yard responsible for certain portions of each hull.

“The Block IV award is the largest shipbuilding contract in US Navy history in terms of total dollar value,” said Rear Adm. Dave Johnson, program executive officer for submarines at Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA). It “builds upon the Virginia-class program’s successful Navy and industry relationship,” he added, calling the program “a model of acquisition excellence.”

In a joint statement, the shipbuilders chimed in.

“This is the largest number of boats ordered to date in a single contract block, which is great news — particularly in light of today’s challenging economic and political environments,” said Newport News Shipbuilding President Matt Mulherin.

“This award has great significance for the US Navy, our company and the entire submarine industrial base,” Jeffrey Geiger, president of Electric Boat, said in the statement. “By continuing to produce two ships per year, the Navy and industry team retains the stability required to achieve increased efficiencies, providing the fleet with the submarines it needs to sustain the nation’s undersea dominance.”

The Block IV award covers hull numbers SSN 792 through SSN 801. None of the ships have yet been named. SSN 792 is funded in fiscal 2014. Construction of SSN 792, Electric Boat said, will begin May 1. SSN 801 is scheduled to be delivered to the fleet in 2023. “The Navy and shipbuilders worked together to produce a contract that is both fair to the Navy and industry,” Johnson said. “This contract lowers the per-ship cost compared to Block III.”

Ten Virginia-class submarines already have been delivered and are in service, while another eight are under construction or on order. The North Dakota, first of the Block III group, is to be delivered this summer. Electric Boat fabricates most of their submarine work at Quonset Point, R.I., and assembles the hulls at Groton, Conn. Newport News builds and assembles its submarines in Newport News, Va.

The Navy contract announcement noted that the award for $17,645,580,644 includes options for on-board repair parts for each submarine. If those options are exercised, the Navy said, the total contract value would reach $17,827,808,738. Each submarine displaces 7,800 tons submerged, with a hull length of 377 feet and diameter of 34 feet. They are listed as “capable” of speeds greater than 25 knots with a diving depth greater than 800 feet, while carrying Mark 48 advanced capability torpedoes, Tomahawk land-attack missiles and unmanned underwater vehicles.

Nearly all Virginia-class submarines have been procured under block buy or multiyear contracts, which provide shipbuilders with greater opportunities for construction efficiencies. Each successive block buy has introduced further improvements into the design. “Block IV submarines will incorporate modifications that reduce acquisition and lifecycle costs,” NAVSEA said in its statement. “Reducing the ships’ total lifecycle cost, an initiative called ‘3:15,’ aims to decrease the number of major shipyard availabilities from four to three, allowing for an additional deployment per hull — raising each submarine’s capability from 14 to 15 full-length deployments.”

The added deployment means, according to the Navy, that the price-per-deployment is lower for Block IV subs.

“With the decrease in cost and the increase in capability,” Johnson said, “we are essentially getting more for less.”

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