By Andrea Shalal-Esa
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Top U.S. Navy officials warned Congress that any further delays or cuts in funding would undercut the readiness of the declining U.S. submarine fleet, which is already slated to drop by nearly 30 percent to 52 from 73 ships before rebounding in the 2030s.
The drop in the size of the fleet would result in a 40 percent reduction in the deployment of the Navy's attack and guided missile submarines over the next 15 years, at a time when missile threats were growing, the officials told the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee's seapower subcommittee on Thursday.
Rear Admiral Richard Breckenridge, director of undersea warfare, and Rear Admiral David Johnson, program executive officer for submarines, said they were taking steps to respond by building new submarines faster, increasing deployment times, and extending the service lives of existing ships.
They said those measures could increase the deployment of Navy submarines, but would not give the Navy more assets to surge with if needed for a conflict. At the same time, the undersea domain is becoming increasingly important given underwater pipelines, telecommunications cables, increased shipping, oil drilling, and the shrinking Arctic ice cap.
"We face significant challenges to maintaining our undersea dominance, but we understand the challenges and are executing a realistic and economically feasible plan to address them," the admirals told lawmakers, according to the text of their prepared testimony.
The Navy and other military services are struggling to implement $500 billion in mandatory, across-the-board budget cuts that are due to take effect over the next decade - on top of $487 billion in cuts that had already been planned.
The Navy faces billions of dollars in costs to develop a new ballistic missile submarine in coming years at a time when it must also replace aging surface warships and fund purchases of new warplanes for its carriers.
General Dynamics Corp and Huntington Ingalls Industries Inc, which build the Navy's new Virginia-class submarines, have cut costs sharply in recent years, but executives warn that delaying orders or slowing the pace of production will send costs higher again.
Breckenridge and Johnson said the mandatory budget cuts were adding to pressures already facing the Navy after big reductions in the 1990s that led to the loss of nearly 12 attack submarines and cut the Navy's strike capability by half.
They said the Navy expected to sign a new multiyear agreement for more Virginia-class submarines in the first quarter of fiscal 2014, which begins on October 1, lauding faster production and the improved readiness of new vessels.
The new Block IV construction contract for the submarines will further reduce the lifetime cost of operating the new submarines, and scale back the required maintenance periods to three from four now, they said.
They said it was crucial to continue work on a replacement for the current Ohio-class of ballistic missile submarines that carry nuclear weapons, whose deployment has already been delayed until 2031, 20 years later than expected.
The Navy has already delayed the Ohio-class replacement program by two years, accepting some moderate risk, but the officials told lawmakers no further delays were acceptable.
"Further delays would produce a gap in at-sea strategic requirements, as there is no additional margin to further extend the life of the Ohio SSBNs nor is it possible to accelerate the already aggressive lead ship construction schedule," they said, vowing to continue driving down the cost of the new program.
(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)