While Lennon could not talk about how the ORP would perform, another industry source said that though a boomer’s handling is not quite as spritely as an attack boat like the Virginia-class, the performance differential is not as great as one might imagine. In fact, there is not that much difference in terms of speed, maneuverability and diving performance.
In terms of combat systems, sensors and self-defense weapons—most of the ORP’s systems are common with the Virginia-class. The ORP’s combat systems will be the latest version from the Virginia-class—indeed the two classes will share upgrades and software even though the ORP won’t need all of the functionality that an attack boat needs. Theoretically, the ORP—whose torpedo room design is also very closely related to the Virginias—would be able to support cruise missiles like the Tomahawk, but it is highly unlikely that the Navy would ever use that ability. “The intent is their whole upgrade system...would be common across SSNs and SSBNs to the extent the capabilities are needed on both,” Lennon said.
One of the major downsides of the ORP program is that it is expensive. The total program is expected to cost more than $97.0 billion in constant FY2016 dollars according to the Congressional Research Service. That includes about $12.0 billion in research and development costs and about $85.1 billion in procurement costs. The Navy hopes to reduce the cost of each submarine—following the initial boat which is going to be much more expensive—to about $4.9 billion. However, thus far, while the service has made progress, the projected price tag remains at about $5.2 billion—but Electric Boat has been “incentivized” to reduce cost. “We’ve done a lot of work last year on cost,” Goggins said.
The U.S. Congress—particularly Rep. Randy Forbes (R-VA), chairman of House Armed Service Committee’s Seapower and Projection Forces subcommittee, and ranking member Rep. Joe Courtney (D-CT)—have worked hard to setup a National Sea-Based Deterrence Fund to help the Navy to pay for the program. If the Navy had to pay for the ORP out of its shipbuilding accounts, it would all but decimate the service’s regular ship construction coffers—consuming money for attack submarines, surface ships and even aircraft carriers. Thus, Congress and the Pentagon have to find someway to pay for the ORP without damaging the Navy. The Pentagon and Congress setup a separate fund to pay for the original Ohio-class to secure America’s nuclear deterrent—the country will likely have to do so again to pay for the ORP.
Dave Majumdar is the defense editor of The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveMajumdar.