Troubled Trident submarine program to get priority congressional attention

Scrutiny of the Navy's problem-plunged Trident submarine program will be one of the first items on the agenda for the 97th Congress when it conveness next month.

Perturbed by the delays and cost overruns that have bedeviled the Trident program, the House's seapower subcommittee, now chaired by Rep. Charles E. Bennett (D) of florida, will hold hearings on the huge missile-firing submarine in late January or early February.

Later this month, Rep. David F. Emery (R) of Maine, the second-ranking Republican on the subcommittee, will travel to Groton, Conn., where the submarine is being built by the Electric Boat Division of General Dynamics Corporation, to begin a probe of its woes.

"I'm not interested in playing games with Electric Boat," says Representative Emery, a former electronics engineer. "I'm simply trying to find out what the facts are, and I'm trying not to go with any preconceived notion of who's to blame."

The first of the Tridents, which are to replace aging Polaris and poseidon boats, was launched April 7, 1979. But when it begins its sea trials next February, the submarine Ohio will have been completed two years behind schedule at a cost of $1.2 billion -- $225 million more than originally estimated.

"There's been a history of severe labor problems, management problems, and all sorts of inefficiencies at Electric Boat that have had the effect of delaying the program and causing cost overruns," says Emery.

A recent New York Times report that the Trident program was bedeviled by sloppy workmanship, particularly by poor welding, was initially rejected by the US Defense Department.

But now, Maj. Gen. Jerry R. Curry, deputy assistant secretary for public affairs at the Pentagon, concedes that the conversion of polaris boats into attack submarines could be suspended until problems with the Ohio (which may stem from "poor workmanship and deficiencies") are resolved. Such conversion is mandated under the SALT I agreement, which limits the number of ballistic missiles the US and the Soviet Union can deploy at sea.

While the Defense Department may now be tacitly admitting that poor workmanship is delaying the Trident program, Electric Boat spokesman Alex Piranian roundly rejects the suggestion.

"We've had a few instances of bad welds," he says, "but they are well behind us now." As he sees it," the biggest problem we had was with government design changes and defective equipment provided us by the government."

Mr. Piranian points out that "you always get some delays" on the lead ship of a new class. "That's normal procedure almost," he says, adding that such delays are even more likely with a submarine the size of Trident. Naval architects note that because of the enormous cost of the Trident, the Navy was unable to build a prototype and thus was compelled to make changes in the vessel as work proceeded.

"We're primarily interested in finding out what needs to be done to bring the Trident program back on schedule," declares Emery, noting that the subcommittee will be concerned to discover whether there were any changes in the design specifications and whether there are any flaws in the contracting procedure.

"And we're concerned about instances when improper steel was used in some of the construction," he adds. Among those expected to testify at the hearings will be: P. Takis Veliotis, Electric Boat's yard manager, and Adm. A. J. Whittle , head of the Naval Materiel Command.

Emery sees no possibility that Trident will be canceled. But Norman Polmar, a leading authority on the Navy and the author of "The Ships and Aircraft of the US fleet," believes that "serious thought" should be given to halting production of the submarine. Calling the Trident program a "disaster," he says its problems "are totally unrelated to sloppy workmanship or anything else."

In his view, the Trident is far too large -- something he blames on Adm. Hyman G. Rickover, the head of the Navy's nuclear power program. He says the size and complexity of the submarine stem from the admiral's insistence that it house a reactor large enough to drive a 60,000-hp. propulsion system. When the Trident program was conceived, he maintains, the then chief of naval operations, Adm. Elmo Zumwalt, "was so anxious to get improved strategic capability for the US that he accepted that [reactor] just to get Rickover's support."

Mr. Polmar, who is to publish a biography of Admiral Rickover next year, also claims that the Navy's management of the Trident program has been "atrocious." He says there were "too many people controlling too many parts of the submarine. At one point, there were 10 players and no one person could say yes or no short of the Chief of Naval Operations."

He believes there are acceptable alternatives to Trident. "These include doing what we did with the very first Polaris-class submarine," he says. "We took attack subs, split them in half, and inserted a 16-tube missile compartment."

He believes this could be done with the Los Angeles-class attack submarines. If this were not to prove feasible, he adds, a new, smaller Trident might be designed.Along with the deployment of the strategic cruise missile, these measures "would give us a less-expensive and more flexible sea-based strategic deterrent than continuing to build 19,000-ton submarines."

But one congressional source disagrees, saying: "At this point, we desperately need the Trident. It's part of the [strategic nuclear] triad."

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