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Marine Log

May 8, 2007

RAND urges early start on design of next nuclear submarine class

The U.S. Navy should start designing the next class of nuclear submarines five years ahead of schedule and stretch out the design period to prevent a critical erosion of skilled submarine designers and engineers, according to a just-released RAND Corporation study.

As an alternative, the study suggests the Navy support efforts by the submarine-building shipyards to retain skilled design workers instead of laying them off.

For the first time since the creation of nuclear-powered submarines, the U.S. Navy is facing a period when it will have no design program underway for a new class of nuclear submarine or a major upgrade of an existing class. As a result, the Navy's access to highly specialized submarine designers and engineers could dwindle, burdening the next submarine design effort with additional costs, delays and risks, according to the study.

"Special skills are required in submarine design that aren't required in other ship design programs," said John Schank, a senior operations research analyst at RAND and lead author of the report. "These designers and engineers have a unique capability focused on submarines, and now we're facing a period where there may be no work to keep them in their jobs and their skills enhanced. If you let the skills atrophy and try to build them up in the future, it will cost more than if you keep some designers and engineers at work during the gap."

The study by RAND, a nonprofit research organization, is titled "Sustaining U.S. Nuclear Submarine Design Capabilities." It was sponsored by the U.S. Navy and conducted within the Acquisition and Technology Policy Center of the RAND National Defense Research Institute.

Schank said nuclear submarines are so well-built and designed that the Navy can extend their use for up to 10 years longer than expected. This happened with the Ohio class of ballistic missile submarines. A new design for a replacement class is now not needed until approximately 2014, creating a gap.

A single nuclear-powered submarine can cost as much as $2.5 billion. Designing a new class of submarine can take 15 years or longer, and require hundreds of specific skills.

The Navy relies on two submarine builders: General Dynamics' Electric Boat facilities in Connecticut and Rhode Island, and Northrop Grumman's Newport News facility in Virginia. Both have design work in progress, but this is diminishing, raising the question of how many designers and engineers would lose their jobs if no new submarine design is started.

If the next submarine design began in 2014 and lasted 15 years, Electric Boat could accomplish the next design least expensively if it sustained a minimum of 800 designers and engineers and Northrup Grumman could do so if it sustained about 1,050 during the "gap" years.

The RAND study recommends beginning design work on the next class of submarines by 2009, and planning on a 20-year cycle, rather than 15 years, which would eliminate the design gap. However, researchers point that this approach could create problems, because the longer it takes to design a submarine, the greater the risk that the submarine will be out of date due to changed threats and technology by the time it goes into service.

"With rising oil prices, there's going to be more interest in nuclear power for commercial use, and that may create demand for the kind of nuclear engineers that submarine builders have relied on," Schank said. "It may be impossible to bring in new talent when it's needed."

Schank said the RAND team examined a number of options to determine the best way the Navy could weather the design gap. The options include collaborating with friendly allies, and putting engineers and designers to work on conceptual designs that might never be built. However, none of these options would guarantee the retention of the full range of skills required to design a new class of submarines for production.

Schank said the issue extends beyond just the shipbuilders. There are a number of vendors who have unique, proprietary products that they provide to the shipbuilders, such as the turbine generators that convert the energy produced by the nuclear reactors into electricity.

The Navy, too, has some unique design capabilities that don't exist at the shipyards. The Navy must also maintain technical capabilities to oversee new design programs and to make technical decisions on proposed changes to a new design. Without a submarine design program, both of these entities could see critical skills erode.

In addition to Schank, other authors of the study are Mark Arena, Paul DeLuca, Jessie Riposo, Kimberly Curry, and James Chiesa of RAND; and U.S. Navy Lt. Commander Todd Weeks.

The RAND National Defense Research Institute is a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Department of the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies and the defense intelligence community

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