2 February 2017
President Donald Trump, continuing his push to slash the cost of defense programs, wants to build more submarines but for less money.
"We're lacking submarines, and we're going to build new submarines, but the price is too high, so I'm cutting the prices way down," Trump said in a Jan. 26 interview at the White House.
The Navy did not immediately return a request for comment.
"I am pleased the Trump Administration recognizes the strategic importance of a strong submarine fleet," said Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee.
"One of the ways to achieve future cost savings is by making smart investments in a skilled workforce and state-of-the-art facilities, which is something we've done here in Rhode Island over the last several years," Reed said.
"We are currently only building one kind of submarine - the Virginia-class program, which is under cost and ahead of schedule," Reed said. "The Columbia-class program, which will replace Ohio-class submarines, is still in the design phase, but the shipbuilders and the Navy are working to reduce construction costs to make the boat as efficient and cost effective as possible."
On the campaign trail, Trump called for a 350-ship Navy but never detailed how he'd beef up the fleet. In recent years, the total number of Navy ships has hovered around 270 to 290. The current count is 274.
"It's a good thing to have a new president who is on track with all the force assessments and strategic reviews that confirm the value of the undersea fleet," said U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District.
Courtney said he is looking forward to the Trump administration's involvement with the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee, of which he is ranking member, in developing this year's defense bill. The subcommittee has oversight over the military's air and sea programs and is where vital discussions about funding for shipbuilding occur.
Late last year, the Navy released a proposal calling for 355 ships, including 18 more attack submarines. If the service's lofty goals are met, it could cost an additional $3.5 billion to $4 billion a year, according to a study by the Congressional Research Service. And that's just shipbuilding costs. More money would be needed to operate and maintain the additional ships and for additional personnel, the study points out.
The Navy expects to have 52 operational attack submarines in 2017.
Attack subs cost $2.7 billion each, and the new ballistic missile submarines are expected to have a price tag of $8 billion each.
Electric Boat President Jeffrey Geiger said in January that the company is poised to meet the Navy's demand for more submarines, provided it has the time to build up its workforce, supplier base and facilities. Already, Electric Boat is in the midst of a hiring spree to carry out its current workload.
Electric Boat, with facilities in North Kingstown and Groton, Connecticut, and Newport News Shipbuilding build two Virginia-class attack submarines a year. Former Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, in one of his last visits to Electric Boat, handed out mock punch cards that said "Buy 9 subs, get the 10th one free!" referencing the $2 billion in savings achieved through a $17.6-billion contract, the largest in Navy shipbuilding history, awarded to Electric Boat in April 2014.
In the negotiation of that contract, certain initiatives were put in place to reduce design costs, the most significant of which was a redesigned bow that included a new sonar array and two larger payload tubes instead of 12 individual, vertical-launch missile tubes. About 20 percent of the ship's design was changed to save about $100 million per submarine. Other cost-saving measures included the ability to buy materials far in advance.
"Those of us who have worked with EB over the years know that affordability is a factor in their business model," said Bob Ross, executive director of the state's Office of Military Affairs.
The company is "well aware" that it is "incredibly expensive" to build submarines and works "very hard to be as efficient and affordable as they can," Ross said.
But he noted that a high price tag is inevitable given the advanced technology being built.
"There's more technology in the Virginia-class submarines than in the space shuttle program," he said. "It's never going to be a low number."
Generally speaking, the Virginia program has been hailed as a success for the on-time and under-budget delivery of the submarines, despite setbacks when inspectors discovered unauthorized and undocumented weld repairs that affected at least three of the submarines. After delivering the Navy's newest attack submarine, the USS Illinois in August 2016, EB estimated the boat came in more than $100 million below target.
On-time and under-budget delivery is why the Navy continues to invest in EB, according to U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., who said in a statement that he won't stop fighting for "strong federal investments that ramp up our submarine force and the local jobs it supports."
The new class of ballistic missile submarines, known as the Columbia class, is expected to cost $128 billion. That number is almost $50 billion lower than original procurement cost estimates due to reducing the number of ships in the class from 14 to 12 and the number of number of missile tubes from 20 to 16, among other initiatives.
Given that the program is well into the design stage, "future decreases will be more difficult to achieve," Frank Kendall, the Pentagon's top weapons buyer, said in approving the program to move on to the advanced development phase.
The best way to keep costs down is to stay on schedule, said U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. He noted that the Navy and EB have been working "tirelessly" and "relentlessly" for years to reduce costs and increase efficiency.