The Daily Press reports that a new Navy shipbuilding plan envisions a future fleet with one fewer aircraft carrier and six fewer attack submarines than exist today, posing a threat to jobs at Northrop Grumman Newport News in the next decade.
The draft plan, which was obtained by the Daily Press but won't be released until February, calls for a total combat force of 313 ships, a significant increase from today's fleet of about 281 ships.
But that total masks a proposed decline in the large - and costly - ships that sustain major shipyards like Newport News.
The overall increase in fleet size can be explained by the Navy's plan to buy 55 Littoral Combat Ships - small, fast attack boats that can patrol waters close to shore. None of those ships exist today. Without them, the proposed future fleet would decline to 258 ships.
The Navy is considering two companies to build the new attack boats. Neither is located in Hampton Roads.
The shift in force structure, analysts said, signals a desire to reorient the Navy away from traditional deep-ocean battles toward ways to better engage in the war on terrorism - mostly fought on land or close to shore.
The new chief of naval operations, Adm. Michael G. Mullen
, hinted at the new focus last week after visiting sailors in Pearl Harbor.
But the strategy shift, which has been evolving for years, could mean more economic pain in Newport News and other major shipbuilding cities.
By sticking to a proposal to mothball the John F. Kennedy aircraft carrier next year and maintain only 11 carriers, the Navy must decide how to preserve a work force at Newport News - the nation's only carrier builder - sometime in the next decade.
Without the need to replace the Kennedy, the carrier currently scheduled to get under construction in about 2012 might not need to be built until 2018, said Ronald O'Rourke, a naval analyst at the Congressional Research Service. The six-year gap in construction work "could also have large effects on employment levels at the yard," he said, unless there was other work available to offset the loss.
The fate of the Kennedy could be resolved this week, as congressional negotiators try to complete a final version of a defense authorization bill for the current fiscal year. The House bill has called for maintaining a 12-carrier fleet, which would preserve the Kennedy, while the Senate version would not.
The future of the Virginia
-class submarine program likewise appears uncertain. The Navy's proposal would shrink its force of attack submarines from 54 to 48. But several analysts expressed skepticism that the Navy could maintain even 48 subs.
Sustaining a fleet of 48 submarines would require doubling submarine procurement to two boats per year instead of one, to keep up with replacing all the older submarines scheduled to be retired.
But the Navy has delayed for years the move to double submarine production. The current six-year shipbuilding plan would not begin buying two submarines a year until 2012. At that rate, O'Rourke said, the Navy would need to start buying three submarines a year for about eight years straight. And virtually no one considers a tripling of submarine production either realistic or affordable in a program already criticized for soaring costs.
Despite such doubts, Northrop Grumman Newport News welcomed the plan, which comes after years of uncertainty over the desired size of the fleet.
"While we have yet to see the report, from a shipbuilder perspective, we are optimistic because a defined plan from the Navy is an important step toward industry stability," said shipyard spokeswoman Jerri Fuller Dickseski.
Industry officials have urged a doubling of submarine production for years to help cut overhead costs and stabilize the construction work. At a rate of one new submarine per year, the country's two submarine builders - Newport News and General Dynamics Corp.'s Electric Boat yard in Connecticut - effectively build half a boat each per year.
General Dynamics last week announced plans to lay off up to 2,400 submarine workers, saying it did not receive contracts for submarine repair work that had been expected.
Costs of the new Virginia-class submarines - designed to be a cheaper alternative to the former Seawolf class - is fast approaching $3 billion a copy, exceeding the cost of the Seawolf. The price tag of the submarine Texas, now under construction, has already reached $2.7 billion - a 24 percent increase from original 1999 estimates.
"I can't be anything but skeptical about their ability to do this," said Christopher Hellman, a military policy analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. "These things are expensive and their costs are growing. As they said in the movie, 'Show me the money.' "
The Navy declined to discuss its draft plan, saying it is still being revised and must await the release of President Bush's budget in February. But analysts said the plan hinges on appropriations of roughly $13.4 billion a year for shipbuilding - a steady state of funding that Navy budgets have been sorely lacking.
It is not clear how - or whether - such significant funding will materialize at a time when defense budgets are expected to decline to help reduce the federal deficit.
This year's shipbuilding budget, for example, calls for spending only $6.2 billion to build four new ships. If refueling and repair work are included, the figure rises to about $8.7 billion. But under current plans, the Navy wouldn't hit the $13 billion figure until about 2009.
Polmar said Navy leaders are betting that more money can be found for shipbuilding by reaping the cost savings of recent reductions in personnel. He said the plan also assumes that managers can begin doing what they have failed to do for years: controlling the cost growth of ships.
But with the next-generation aircraft carrier expected
to cost $14 billion or more, he said, the challenge will be enormous.
Most members of Congress have not yet been briefed on the fleet size plan.
Sen. John W. Warner, R-Va., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, "strongly endorses Adm. Mullen's greater emphasis on shipbuilding and fleet modernization," said Warner spokesman John Ullyot. But it was not clear whether Warner, who has fought to maintain the Kennedy carrier, will support reductions in the carrier and submarine fleets.
Virginia Rep. Jo Ann Davis, R-Gloucester, who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, said, "I absolutely don't support going down to 12 carriers. Dropping our subs down to 48 is absolutely wrong, given what China's doing."
Davis, who has not yet seen the plan, said she also has questions about the role of the new Littoral Combat Ship. "They may have their place, but to me they should not be the bulk of our Navy," she said.