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Newport News Shipbuilding expected to benefit from Navy's new submarine program

Hugh Lessig
The Navy's new submarine program should benefit ongoing work at the Newport News shipyard

The Navy plans to seek design proposals next month for its top priority, a new fleet of ballistic missile submarines that is expected to create more work at Newport News Shipbuilding.

Just how much work remains to be seen.

Naval Sea Systems Command recently said it expects to issue a request for proposals in November for a detailed design for its Ohio-class replacement program. A contract for the design should be awarded "about a year from now," NAVSEA said in a statement. A construction contract would come after that.

The aging Ohio-class boats constitute the undersea portion of the U.S. nuclear deterrence, complementing long-range bombers and land-based missiles.

The Newport News shipyard, a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries, currently builds Virginia-class submarines in partnership with General Dynamics Electric Boat of Groton, Conn. Newport News and Electric Boat are the only two shipyards that build nuclear-powered submarines for the Navy.

The two yards plan to pool efforts again to build the Ohio-class replacement, but those details remain in flux.

In March, Electric Boat and Newport News submitted a work-sharing proposal to the Navy, said Timothy Boulay, a spokesman for Electric Boat. He said he couldn't comment further, nor could Lucy Ryan, a spokeswoman for Electric Boat's parent, General Dynamics. Newport News Shipbuilding deferred comment to Electric Boat and General Dynamics.

The Navy has not approved the agreement.

In June, the head of General Dynamics said the Ohio-class replacement program won't resemble the Virginia-class arrangement, where each shipyard takes turns assembling and launching the submarines.

Ballistic missile submarines are larger than the Virginia-class attack subs, so it will require a different approach, said CEO Phebe Novakovic, as reported by The Washington Business Journal.

NAVSEA said detailed studies on cost and workforce are ongoing and are "coordinated with both shipbuilders to ensure a stable foundation is in place when construction of Ohio replacement begins in fiscal year 2021," according to its emailed statement to the Daily Press.

Aging fleet

Eighteen Ohio-class submarines entered service between 1981 and 1997, according to data from the Congressional Research Service. Originally designed for 30-year lives, the boats were later certified for 42 years of service.

During the Clinton administration, the first four Ohio-class boats were converted to cruise-missile submarines, which do not carry a nuclear payload. The current fleet stands at 14, homeported in King's Bay, Ga., and Bangor, Wash., in Puget Sound. Unlike other Navy ships, Ohio-class submarines operate with alternating crews to maximize their time at sea.

Its basic mission is to stay at sea, in hiding, ready to launch its ballistic missiles. It is considered the most survivable leg of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

The Ohio-class replacement program proposes to replace the current fleet of 14 submarines with 12 more advanced boats. The first boat in the class is expected to cost $12.4 billion. The Navy has estimated the cost of the remaining boats at $6 billion, with the goal of reducing that to $5.5 billion, according to a December report from the Congressional Budget Office.

CBO says the submarines will be more expensive, pegging the lead ship at $13.8 billion and a $7.1 billion average cost for the remaining ships.

The expense has led some lawmakers, notably Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Chesapeake, to advocate for a separate fund outside the regular shipbuilding budget to build the new submarine fleet. Because the submarine's mission is nuclear deterrence, it is more of a national asset than just a Navy asset, he and others say.

HII CEO Mike Petters told Wall Street analysts in August that the funding question is key. Without a separate fund, the fear is that Ohio-class replacement boats will siphon money from other shipbuilding programs. The Navy spends roughly $16 billion per year for all ship construction.

"I can tell you for certain," Petters said, "that if you can't find a separate way to pay for the Ohio Replacement Program, other Navy ships will not be built. And that is a big problem."

Lessig can be reached by phone at 757-247-7821.

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