Simmons fights to prevent submarine plan from sinking

Rep. Rob Simmons (R-Conn.), probably the most ardent congressional supporter of the Navy’s submarine production and fleet, is fighting to stop looming layoffs at General Dynamics’ Electric Boat, one of only two submarine builders in the country.

Rep. Rob Simmons (R-Conn.), probably the most ardent congressional supporter of the Navy’s submarine production and fleet, is fighting to stop looming layoffs at General Dynamics’ Electric Boat, one of only two submarine builders in the country.

But his solution could become the cliffhanger in House-Senate negotiations over both the 2007 defense authorization and appropriations bills.

Electric Boat announced Monday that it would shed 440 workers by September because of a decline in Navy submarine orders. Simmons called the news discouraging.

“For the Congress and the Navy to allow the nation’s premier designer and builder of submarines to lay off thousands of workers is a national-security disaster,” Simmons said in an interview. “These are high-quality workers who will go into other jobs, and we won’t get them back.”

Only 10 percent of the work force returned after past layoffs, he explained.

Monday’s announcement may not be the last; in December, Electric Boat announced that it might cut 1,900-2,400 workers this year at its southeastern New England locations. It plans to cut its work force in half in the next three years, according to a congressional aide.

Simmons, a vulnerable GOP incumbent, has fought the plan with the help of congressional funding. Simmons and the Connecticut delegation also won an intense battle to thwart the Pentagon’s decision to shutter the New London submarine base in its 2005 round of base closures.

“We have been working hard in Congress to curb future layoffs and bring jobs to the region,” said Simmons, vice chairman of the House Armed Services Projection Forces Subcommittee.

“The House has passed bills to build two subs per year, keep maintenance at the shipyard, recompete a SEAL minisub and encourage the sale of eight subs to Taiwan.”

But as conferees are preparing to tackle the differences in the 2007 House and Senate defense authorization bills, some of Simmons’s efforts could be in danger.

Rep. Duncan Hunter’s (R-Calif.) armed-services panel approved a $400 million increase to the president’s budget request championed by Simmons. The money, subsequently approved by the full House, is for advance procurement of items needed to begin building two Virginia-class submarines each year from 2009 onward instead of 2012, as planned by the Navy. Only one sub is built each year at present.

But the Senate bill does not include such a measure, nor does it include language to make submarines available to Taiwan and to recompete the troubled special-operations minisub, said Simmons.

But with Electric Boat’s layoffs looming, Simmons and the House authorizers will press the Senate on the $400 million for advance procurement.

“I have been lobbying members of the Senate to recede to the House on that position, and I have urged my House colleagues to stand secure on that position,” Simmons said.

That money “will encourage the industry to keep people on the payroll in anticipation of the second boat,” Simmons said.

Critics blame the Navy for letting submarine production slide and say its shipbuilding plan does not match its industrial-base plan.

With its layoffs, Electric Boat will lose people with skill sets that are hard to replace, a congressional aide said. If Electric Boat sheds half its work force in the next three years, “you cannot build two submarines a year,” the aide added, and it would be costly to get such people back.

Little of the $400 million would go to Electric Boat. Most would go to subcontactors around the country that make parts.

Even though there is no short-term impact, the money could help stabilize the work force in the future when two submarines will be built per year, said Robert Hamilton, director of communications for Electric Boat.

Simmons argues that building two subs a year would reduce the cost per vessel from $2.4 billion to $2 billion.

Even if defense authorizers agree on the $400 million, the situation becomes more complicated in the defense appropriations process.

The House did not include money for advance procurement in its 2007 defense appropriations bill. The Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee is just now starting to mark up the bill.

Noting Simmons’s strong policy arguments and persistence, House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Bill Young (R-Fla.) said in a colloquy on the floor that he would continue to work with Simmons as House appropriators prepare for a conference to “address the shortage of submarines in our Navy.”

“I do intend to work with him because I also believe that we should have a larger submarine fleet,” Young added. “I am a very strong advocate of our submarine capability. I think that is one of the best deterrence systems that we have, one of the best military systems, and I appreciate the work of the gentleman from Connecticut on this issue.”

House appropriators included $17 million for additional design work on the Virginia-class program. Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) also secured $75 million in defense authorization for design improvement.

More money for design and engineering would have a greater short-term impact in keeping some of the qualified work force at the submarine yard, Hamilton said. The work force would stabilize only after the Navy starts ordering two submarines a year, he added.

“We would have to bring people back or hire new people,” Hamilton said.

In the meantime, the company is looking for any work that it can bring into the shipyard to “mitigate the impact as much as possible,” he said. The company wants to capitalize on core competencies and skills and apply them to other potential work.