The U.S. submarine force represents the most versatile and capable weapons system in the nation’s defensive arsenal. Silent, elusive and packing a formidable punch, submarines are unlike and unmatched by any other weapons platform produced.
As defense spending contracts in response to still emerging world political realities, it becomes even more crucial that the country continue its investment in the submarine fleet as the most cost-effective weapons system now employed in support of national strategies.
There is no doubt that U.S. submarines are second to none. The effort required to maintain their superiority and successfully counter evolving threats translates into the need to preserve the country’s submarine industrial base. This unique and highly specialized base, which supports the technology needed to design, build, repair and provide lifecycle support for the Navy’s submarines around the world, is a national strategic asset.
The industrial base marshalled to produce the 688-class and TRIDENT -class ballistic-missile submarines represents one of the most highly specialized and technical industries in the nation. For the next several years, this base will depend solely on the SEA WOLF class, making it imperative that the acquisition strategy employed for this program is effective in maintaining our capabilities now and in the future. Initially, the SEA WOLF program called for the procurement of a nominal force level of 30 submarines at a construction rate of three to four per year, a level that would support competition between Electric Boat and Newport News Shipbuilding, the nation’s two nuclear-capable shipyards. That plan changed dramatically during 1990; it now appears that the class will be limited to 12 ships at a procurement rate of one per year at least through 1995.
This low rate of production does not lend itself to traditional competitive procurement procedures. An alternative acquisition strategy must be developed to maintain the key elements of the submarine industrial base, including nuclear propulsion engineering, facilities, trades and vendors.
The dilemma that arises is as obvious as it is knotty — how do we protect this vital industrial base in an environment marked by sharply reduced defense spending.
Over the long term, this issue will be addressed by the introduction of a lower-cost SSN, described recently by CNO Admiral Frank B. Kelso, D. With a lower unit cost, this new class could be procured at rates high enough to support the operation of two submarine shipyards. The new class would also enable the Navy to maintain its desired force levels beyond the year 2000 when large numbers of 688-class submarines are scheduled for retirement.
In the meantime, the health and welfare of the submarine industrial base remains tied directly to the fate of the SEAWOLF program, which is, in tum, linked to the cost-effectiveness of its acquisition strategy. Boiled down to basics, the production of the SSN-21 class in the most cost-effective manner represents the best possible way to positively influence the program’s scope and duration.
The key element in a cost-effective acquisition strategy for SEA WOLF is to establish a stable production rate at one supplier to drive costs out of the program. The second supplier should be introduced when production rates and budgets support.
The benefits derived from a stable and predictable workload are perhaps best illustrated by the Navy’s TRIDENT ballisticmissile submarine program. Widely praised as one of the most cost-effective weapon systems procurements in U.S. history, the success of the TRIDENT program results primarily from the maintenance of a consistent procurement rate. This approach brought both the Navy and Electric Boat significant cost savings based on the ability to level-load the work force, as well as the buildup of a large and competitive supplier base. The program has been responsible for delivering the last 10 of the TRIDENT class ships an average of 6.8 weeks ahead of schedule. Over the course of this program, quality has improved at an annual rate of more than 10 percent.
In the case of the SEA WOLF program as it now exists -with two shipyards vying for a single submarine contract per year — there is virtually no possibility of maintaining a stable and predictable work load. In fact, there is a distinct likelihood that Electric Boat may be forced out of business if it is not sustained at a one-ship-per-year rate.
As a hedge against this scenario, Electric Boat has investigated several avenues of diversification, including submarine overhauls, construction relating to the commercial nuclear power industry, and commercial and naval surface ships.
None ofthese opportunities, however, could be expected to sustain either the work force or facilities currently in place at Electric Boat, which is dedicated exclusively to nuclear-submarine construction.
To maintain an industrial base of two nuclear-capable shipyards, and to achieve the lowest possible cost, it is clearly preferable to direct SEA WOLF construction to the yard that specializes exclusively in submarine design and production. With its greater market flexibility, the second shipyard could, in the meantime, rely on its broader capabilities until SEA WOLF procurement levels reach a point where it could be brought in to help build the Class. This approach would also avoid the risk of forcing the lead SEA WOLF construction yard out of business.
A cost-effective strategy for the SEA WOLF program must emphasize production stability, which will promote the best use of the capabilities developed by the industrial base. Many of these capabilities — particularly modular construction and outfitting – were developed and proven by Electric Boat and are demonstrated daily in its operations. EB’s Land Level Submarine Construction Facility at the Groton, Connecticut shipyard, has operated smoothly since 1974, acting as a forerunner of other domestic and United Kingdom land level facilities. Designed to handle, move and assemble heavily outfitted submarine hull sections into complete submarines, it has enabled Electric Boat to pioneer and continuously improve labor- and time-saving modular submarine construction techniques.
Another capability crucial to the maintenance of the submarine industrial base is Electric Boat’s 4,500-person engineering and design staff, which is closely involved in all facets of undersea technology including propulsion, combat systems, acoustics, hydrodynamics and advanced materials.
The facilities and engineering capabilities in the industrial base represent a breadth and depth of knowledge, skill and experience that cannot be simply switched off and back on again, except at exorbitant cost. A shutdown of Electric Boat would be, in all likelihood, irreversible and bring with it irretrievable harm to the industrial base.
The work force is another critical part of the defense industrial base, an element that is in place, that has already been paid for, and that cannot easily be replaced or reactivated. This team cannot be put in storage or mothballed – it must keep working to remain effective
EB’s own history demonstrates that a high percentage of skilled trades people do not respond to job recalls. Many of them find other jobs, while residual uncertainty about longrange employment prospects makes it difficult to attract and retain new workers. Top performers migrate to outside job opportunities, while the disruption of work crews can lead to schedule and budget overruns.
At a construction rate of less than one ship per year, the future of Electric Boat is jeopardized. Not only is the closing of the division’s manufacturing sites probable in this scenario, but the cost of all ships now under construction could also be affected.
The ripple effect of a shutdown would be devastating and widespread, placing at risk the higher technology sector of the overall submarine industrial base. This sector, the supplier of specialized technology needed to build and maintain the submarine fleet, employs tens of thousands of skilled employees at a shrinking number of subcontractor and supplier firms.
The decline in recent years of industries that used to share elements of a common base – surface warship and commercial shipbuilding, commercial nuclear power, and offshore oil, for instance — has already reduced the manpower and technology pool available.
The submarine industrial base is a national asset with a replacement cost beyond the reach of business or government. Its continued viability is necessary for the preservation of the high-technology capabilities that will be required in the 21st century.
Again, the vital element that will lead to the preservation of these key capabilities is a stable production rate and a cost effective acquisition strategy for the SEA WOLF. This should be the goal for all of us — Navy, contractors, employees and suppliers — in the difficult period ahead.
THE SUBMARINE REVIEW
THE SUBMARINE REVIEW is a quarterly publication of the Submarine League. It is a forum for discussion of submarine matters. Not only are the ideas of its members to be reflected in the REVIEW, but those of others as well, who are interested in submarines and submarining.
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