A key U.S. Senate panel on Tuesday announced that it would seek to restrict a Navy program to build new missile launch tubes into its Virginia-class attack submarines (see GSN, March 16).
The Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee said its version of a fiscal 2013 funding bill had moved to “limit” the Obama administration’s ability to start a new Virginia Payload Module developmental effort “until requirements and cost estimates are validated.” The lawmakers did not elaborate.
The subcommittee-approved $604.5 billion markup text has not yet been released but could be publicly available by Thursday, when the full Appropriations Committee is slated to consider the legislation.
A Navy flag officer last year asserted that the effort to expand weapons capacity in as many as 20 new attack submarines would be “cost-effective,” offering fresh arrows in the sea-based quiver at a fraction of the price of other shipbuilding alternatives. The price tag for building the modules — not counting the missiles and warheads to load in them — could top $10 billion.
The Virginia Payload Module would add “about 20 percent to the cost of each ship,” Rear Adm. Michael Connor said in an article about future Navy procurement for undersea combat. Each Virginia-class submarine currently costs roughly $2.6 billion, suggesting the new weapon capacity could boost the unit price to slightly more than $3.1 billion, again excluding the cost of missiles and their warheads.
The desire to add Tomahawk tubes to the Navy’s attack submarine fleet is a long trend. Original Los Angeles class boats only had their four torpedo tubes. Later boats had a 12-tube Vertical Launch System. In the conversion of four Ohio class Trident submarines from Ballistic Missile boats to Guided Missile boats, a “drop in” missile tube was developed that allowed each former trident tube to carry several Tomohawk missiles. A similar module is on the bow of current production Virginia class attack subs.
The General Dynamic/USN proposal is to “stretch” the Virginia class to allow four more of these multiple-missile tubes to be added.
Stretching a boat, while expensive, is hardly unheard of. The USS Jimmy Carter took the SSN-21 Seawolf design and added a 100 foot extension to give it greater special operations capabilities. I suspect sooner or later, the design for a stretched Virginia class will be approved.