By Geoff Fein

The Virginia-class submarine program is hitting two marks this month as the Pentagon approved Milestone III and authorization of full-rate production, and the lead ship is heading into the class’ first shipyard availability, a service official said.

Milestone III approval will allow the program to continue construction of the boats beyond the established Low-Rate Initial Production (LRIP) of 14 submarines through the remainder of the class, according to the Navy.

Those 14 ships include four in Block I, six in Block II and the first four of Block II, Capt. Michael Jabaley, Virginia-class program manager, told Defense Daily recently.

“To move beyond that you have to have a favorable Full Rate Production (FRP) decision review. In the old acquisition framework, which this program was created under, that FRP decision review is coincident with Milestone III,” he said. “That’s where we are now. It gives us authority to go beyond those 14 LRIP boats and build the rest of the class.”

Contracts have been issued for the first 18 submarines, he added. Block III is an eight-ship block contract. It takes the Navy out to the two ships in fiscal year ’13, Jabaley said.

The Navy will begin procuring two Virginia-class submarines a year in FY ’14. The service will continue to buy at the rate of two per year until FY ’18 when the rate returns to one submarine, he added.

The Navy prefers to go with a multi-year buy, which is limited to a single five-year block, Jabaley noted. As it stands now, that five-year block has nine submarines.

“Our strategy would be to gain congressional authorization for a five-year multi-year procurement contract for those nine boats. That would start in FY ’14, so we would need to award that contract by the end of FY ’13,” he said. “We clearly believe that two ships per year is the right production rate. It would make a lot of sense to add that 10th ship into the contract–a second ship in FY ’18. We are working with the Navy to figure out if the shipbuilding strategy can support that.”

Jabaley added that one of the next big strategy points is for the Virginia program to work with Navy and the Office of the Secretary of Defense to explore the long-range strategy for fast attack submarines. “If you look at the long-range shipbuilding strategy, you’ll note it has us continuing to build fast-attack submarines and, so the question becomes, will they be Virginia-class submarines, will they be some modification of a Virginia-class submarine, or will they be a completely new design of a fast- attack sub?”

According to the acquisition program baseline, the Virginia-class is a 30-boat class, but the long-range shipbuilding strategy goes beyond a 30-ship program, Jabaley said “So we have to answer all those questions.”

The USS Virginia (SSN-774) begins her first shipyard availability on Oct. 1. Jabaley said she has already pulled into Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, New Hampshire. “They are doing crew training and assimilation and some early start on staging,” he added.

Jabaley said his focus right now is on reducing the total amount of maintenance so a Virginia-class submarine only has to do three shipyard availabilities, instead of four, over its life, and increase the number of deployments from 14 to 15 for each boat.

At the end of September, Virginia will go into dry-dock and begin her first Extended Dry-docking Selected Restricted Availability.

‘”As we go into the systems on Virginia and find out how she is doing in the six years since she was delivered from construction, we will learn even more about what maintenance has to be done, when it has to be done, how long it takes to do it, and then we can factor that back in (to the deployment and maintenance availability scheduled),” he said. “We may realize there are some things we need to make design changes on, but by doing that it will get us to that goal of one additional deployment and one fewer maintenance availability.”