This week, in Congressional hearings, the Navy’s top acquisition official explained the Navy’s thinking in requesting a third Virginia-class attack submarine (SSN) in the FY 2020 budget request.

The Navy’s request is asking for nearly $10 billion to buy three Virginia boats, one more than last year. Two are set to be in the Block V group and will feature the Virginia Payload Module (VPM) that will allow it to carry additional Tomahawk cruise missiles.

USS Washington (SSN 787), a Virginia-class submarine, completing initial sea trials. (Photo: Huntington Ingalls Industries)

These submarines are in the second year of a 10 vessel multi-year procurement contract for submarines, dividing the work between shipbuilders General Dynamics’ [GD] Electric Boat (GDEB) and Huntington Ingalls Industries [HII]. The contract is for five years.

James Geurts, Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition, told Senators during a Senate Armed Services Seapower subcommittee hearing that the service’s biggest shortfall is in attack submarines and “we’re looking for any opportunity to accelerate that versus the other fleets we have.”

When pressed by ranking member Sen. Mazi Hirono (D-Hawaii) on why the Navy is paying for the third submarine entirely in FY 2020 funds when the vessel will not start procurement until 2023, Geurts said it relates to the submarine being outside of the block buy.

“While normally we would have just done the advanced procurement, since this is outside of the block buy, and because of the criticality of adding the submarines and trying to get that left of the Columbia production ramp up, we chose to fully fund that in ‘20, when we had – we made the hard decision to fully fund that in ‘20 vs. over a couple of years,” Geurts said.

He was referring to the Columbia ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) program that is set to start procurement in the mid-2020s.

While the Navy’s contracts to GDEB and HII included options for additional boats, Guerts meant since the Navy already awarded the economic order quantity contracts for advance procurement of materials for 10 submarines, a third boat would cost more since the parts will not be subject to the lower rate of buying parts in volume. Given those constraints, the Navy is paying for the third FY ’20 submarine in 2020 dollars entirely, rather than starting with single submarine advance procurement funds before FY 2023.

2020 Navy budget request documents explained “the third FY20 SSN was added during the PB2020 cycle without historical two-year and one-year Advance Procurement (AP) or Economic Order Quantity (EOQ]) and thus will require three years to procure long lead time material (LLTM). As a result, the third FY20 SSN will begin construction in FY23.”

In contrast, there is economic order quantity funding in FY ’18-21 and advance procurement funding for FY ’17-22 for LLTM for 10 submarines. The budget documents said there is “no AP/EOQ included for the third FY20 SSN.”

At a House Armed Services Seapower subcommittee hearing on Tuesday, Geurts underscored the Columbia element in the decision on the third SSN.

It is important to keep in mind “Columbia coming along and making sure, as we look at it, by loading it now it gives us the most time to figure out how to use that efficiently as a risk-reduction element for Columbia, i.e. we can get some of the additional workforce trained up, get some more of the supplier base and get some of those supplier bills out of the way before Columbia gets here,” he said.

Last year the House Seapower subcommittee leaders pushed for an amendment to add $1 billion to the defense appropriations bill for advanced procurement for three Virginia submarines in both FY ’22 and 23, but the effort failed amid opposition by the Defense Department (Defense Daily, June 28, 2018).

Geurts explained that “our analysis last year wasn’t mature enough to commit to [buying the third submarine]. This year we felt more comfortable, recognizing both the state of the program and the urgency of the requirement.”

The Navy has a requirement for 66 submarines but currently has 51.