By Geoff Fein

The Navy is continuing to find ways to shave dollars from the cost of building Virginia-class submarines, and is within $40 million of reaching its goal of $2 billion per hull, according to a Navy official.

Additionally, the Navy is moving closer to getting the construction cycle from build to completion down to 60 months, Rear Adm. William Hilarides, program executive officer submarines (PEO Subs), told Defense Daily in a recent interview.

The Navy is planning to enter into a new multiyear procurement for Virginia-class submarines, Hilarides said. He is hoping to issue a request for proposals within the next month and a new contract in the October 2008 time frame.

The USS Virginia (SSN-774) is beginning operational evaluation (OPEVAL) and next spring the whole surface warfare module will be put through its paces, Hilarides said. OPEVAL for Virginia will run through 2008 and 2009, taking approximately 15 months. The boat will reach Milestone III in 2009, he added.

One of the goals of the Virginia-class program has been to trim the construction cost to $2 billion a hull. The Navy and its industry partners General Dynamics [GD] and Northrop Grumman [NOC] have worked hard to cut costs from the ship, Hilarides said.

For example, the Navy has redesigned the torpedo room.

“We took the hydraulics out of the torpedo handling system. It’s a very dense hydraulic part of the ship. So half a mile of pipe and hundreds and hundreds of valves, filters [were removed] and replaced with electric actuators,” Hilarides said.

Replacing the hydraulics with roughly 60 actuators saved about $3 million a ship, he added.

“We have now committed to doing this. So we are now going to electrify the torpedo room. It’s part of the electric ship…it takes us another step toward taking hydraulics off the ship,” Hilarides noted.

The first ship of the next block build will get the electric torpedo room, he added.

Not every cost savings effort helped move the program toward the $2 billion per hull goal, Hilarides said.

“We actually choose one that doesn’t help my end cost. This is me telling the world we didn’t just focus on end cost,” he explained. “The Post Shakedown Availability currently cost about $60 million on these ships. We came up with a way to eliminate it…get rid of it…it won’t have to happen anymore, because of the quality built in, because of our test program. It allows us to deploy the ship a lot earlier and save the fleet $60 million. But it doesn’t do anything for my end cost.”

Along with efforts to reduce the cost and schedule of Virginia-class submarines, the Navy is wrapping up work on the USS Ohio conversion effort. Hilarides said Team Submarine garnered good lessons from the SSGN program that it was able to translate to the Virginia-class effort.

Stability in requirements, a well staffed program office with a lot of hard work with respect to earned value management, engagement with the prime contractor and sub contractors, and detailed work, all helped make the SSGN program a success, Hilarides, said..

“From the time we set the program baseline to when we finished, we did pretty well…about a one percent cost differential, and we can account for that,” he said. “From Milestone C…we initiated at Milestone C for this program…to when we finished, we added about $40 million across a $4 billion program. We slipped three months total between the four ships, which was a two percent total schedule slip.”

The lead ship of the new class, the USS Ohio (SSGN-726), is on deployment now, Hilarides noted.

Ohio has left her home port a couple of months ago and she doesn’t go back for a year. There are not a lot of platforms out there that do that,” Hilarides said. “An Army brigade does that but a submarine to go out and stay forward for an entire year with the kind of volume and the capabilities they got…that’s pretty good.”

The Navy converted four Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines to guided missile subs capable of launching Tomahawk cruise missiles and deploying special operations forces (SOF). Because the conversion didn’t require significant new efforts, there was little risk associated with it, Hilarides said.

On the SOF side, there was some new stuff added to the sub. Hilarides said that’s where most of the cost was. “But we kind of knew that. We created a new hull structure above the hull. That’s not something we do very often.”

“We didn’t stretch for any mind-bending technology here. The revolution was really the reconfigurability and the volume associated with the platform, and that’s why everyone is ga ga over it,” he added.

The USS Michigan (SSGN-727) has been outfitted with the Advanced Seal Delivery System (ASDS)–a submersible that can clandestinely transport SOF to and from a mission. Hilarides said the Michigan and ASDS will go out and get tested right after Christmas.

“That really then brings ASDS to all four SSGNs. And since the vehicle is operational and you’ll have three SSGNs forward continuously…forever…that’s the right marriage of capabilities with that single vehicle,” he said.

Whether the four SSGNs: Ohio, Michigan, USS Florida (SSGN-728) and USS Georgia (SSGN-729) prove to be successful, there likely will be no further SSGNs built, according to a Naval Sea Systems Comamnd (NAVSEA) spokeswoman.

While the SSGN program continues to support the SSGNs as they proceed through delivery and modernization, the Navy is in the process of transitioning support of these submarines to the Strategic and Attack Submarine Program (PMS 392) and the SOF Undersea Mobility Program Office (PMS 399), the NAVSEA spokeswoman said. “Some personnel will transfer to the newly responsible offices; others will transition to other work within Team Submarine.”

“There are no plans to retain a ‘skeleton work force’ against the eventuality that more SSBNs might be converted to SSGNs,” the NAVSEA spokeswoman added. “No requirement for additional SSGNs has been identified.”

Hilarides also pointed out that its been a while since the last generational technology investment for submarines. That took place with the Seawolf-class back in the mid-1980s to early 1990s.

“We spent a lot of money on the platform to make it better than 688, to make it more stealthy, more survivable, and better in littorals,” he said. “Virginia took what we spent on Seawolf and repackaged it. We didn’t go out and invent a bunch of new things for Virginia. So its lineage is really the same from a stealth perspective, from a ship’s capabilities perspective.”

But there are a lot of areas the Navy could look at for investment, Hilarides noted. For example, providing stealth in the littorals. “Can you see the submarine against the sand?”

“Is there something for the SSBN about transiting, and being stealthy while transiting, because it might have a slightly different mission description,” Hilarides said.

Other areas for investment include advanced sensors and integration of off board sensors, he added. “So those are examples of areas you might invest in.”