News keeps coming out of the world of the submarines, both past and present, and in a way, future.
Three days after the man who set the May 23 and 16 June, 2012 fires on the USS Miami, yes another small fire was reported on March 18, 2013. While this fire does appear to be purely accidental (reported as being sparked by a damaged light fixture), it put Miami’s future in further doubt.
Initially determined to put Miami back in service, the Navy had to start making decisions about what and where to best put their money after the sequestration kicked in on 1 March 2013. This most recent fire has only furthered those questions about whether Miami is most effective for the Navy refurbished and back in service, or torn apart (possibly for parts for her sisters). As it is, the civilian workers at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard are already going to have to take 22 days off without pay between April and September 30, which, of course, further slows the rate or repairs.
On the other hand, the US House passed a bill that would still preserve the construction of two Virginia-class Submarines in 2014, setting aside the approximate $777 million dollar cost for their materials and work for that calendar year. That bill has headed to the Senate.
This debate opens up a new and interesting debate that’s been slowly growing in the Submarine Force. Each submarine is the pinnacle of her era’s technology, and is constantly being updated between patrols and tours. That being said, at the pace of technology, not to mention nuclear fuel rods, most submarines have a certain life-expectancy. If you replace the fuel rods once, a submarine can expect to serve 32-33 years (Los Angeles, the longest in-commission submarine served 34 years from 1976 to 2010. Currently, the USS Bremerton, (1981-current) is the closest to beating her title at 32 years and counting.). But at the height of the Cold War, the American Navy was commissioning 2-5 submarines in a year. Right now, Virginia class submarines, from the Virginia to the new John Warner, were being built and commissioned at the rate of one every other year to one a year. On 2008 and 2010 two were commissioned, and two submarines were started in each year for 2011 and 2012. If this bill goes through, the two subs for 2013 (likely the South Dakota and Delaware) will also start construction.
At the same time, the aging Los-Angeles Class boats are being phased out, frequently at a faster rate than the new constructions are being phased in. From 2004-2007, only three Virginia class submarines joined the US Navy, (Virginia, Texas and Hawaii), while six submarines were deactivated (Hymen G. Rickover, Augusta (finally deactivated early Jan 2008, but scheduled for 2007) Salt Lake City, Honolulu, Portsmouth, and Parche). This resulted in a net loss of three submarines. While things are balancing out a little more, as some of the oldest boats in the Navy reach 30+ years of age, the Navy has serious issues to grapple with.
Submarines are some of our most versatile vessels. They can go where surface ships can’t, whether by treaty or treacherous sea conditions. Most submarines are positioned to be in a strategic position to strike any location on earth within a 24 hour time frame (or so I’m told). Smaller numbers of submarines available means longer deployments, longer times between repairs, perhaps longer lifespans and limitations on technology as upgrades cannot be fitted into a boat without ripping her apart to her hull.
I’m not sure what the right answer is. Each Virginia costs a $2-$2.4 BILLION each, but are designed to be highly versatile. And the Virginia’s will age: Virginia herself is nine years old this year. Building new is expensive.
But the expense in decommissioning or drawing down the number of decommissioned boats is also expensive. AS anyone who owns an older car can tell you, breakdowns seem to occur more frequently as a car ages—and a sub is no exception.