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GlobalSecurity.org In the News

The Greeneville Sun April 24, 2006

Minisub Program Involving USS Greeneville Canceled

A 12-year Navy program to develop six minisubs for commando missions has been canceled after a $446 million investment, leaving the minisub that has been carried on the back of the USS Greeneville with an uncertain future.

According to an article last week in the Honolulu Advertiser, the original cost estimate on the 55-ton mini-sub was to have been about $80 million. The price tag for the one vessel that was delivered was $366 million above projections, according to the article.

The 65-foot Advanced SEAL Delivery System, or ASDS, was heralded as a “transformational leap ahead” and was intended to deliver commandos dry and rested to a point of departure — rather than in the current underwater vehicles that are open to bone-chilling cold water and require the use of scuba gear, the article said.

The Honolulu Advertiser article said that, after years of problems with batteries, noise and propulsion, the Pentagon canceled the Northrop Grumman project on April 6 because of performance and reliability concerns, the Navy said.

An “improvement program” will be pursued for the sole ASDS, based at a SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team 1 facility on Pearl City Peninsula, the Defense Department said in a press release.

This mini-sub, called ASDS-1, has been carried on the rear deck of the USS Greeneville, the nuclear submarine named for this city, for at least two years, and deployed at least once.

As previously reported in The Greeneville Sun, during the summer of 2004, the Greeneville became the first U.S. attack submarine to be part of an Expeditionary Strike Group (ESG), which is “able to execute any mission assigned to the Navy-Marine Corps team, from the employment of land-attack cruise missiles to the landing of Marine Corps ground forces.”

Successful Deployment

During a visit to Greeneville, Commander Lee Hankins, who was then the captain of the USS Greeneville, said the submarine and its crew participated in outstanding training operations in the Western Pacific with ESG-1.

“This was a successful deployment,” Hankins said. “We were the first submarine to do an ESG deployment. We also conducted a forward-deployed exercise with the Advanced SEAL Delivery System (ASDS).

“Everything went very well. The crew was superb, and the family support we received was top-notch.”

Part of the submarine’s role in such a group is defense against other submarines, but Hankins said that the fact that Greeneville also is capable of carrying ASDS makes it much more useful.

He noted that the ASDS can operate in water much too shallow for the Greeneville, and thus can greatly extend the submarine’s “reach.”

An ASDS can carry a number of Navy SEALS, who are highly trained combat swimmers.

Congressional Criticism

U.S. Rep. Robert Simmons, R-Conn., whose state includes sub builder Electric Boat, has railed against the Northrop Grumman effort at congressional hearings while suggesting the program be re-bid, the Advertiser reported.

“It worries me greatly that the Advanced SEAL Delivery System, which is something our special operations forces drastically need, is 700 percent over budget, 12 years behind schedule and still hasn’t delivered a workable first SEAL delivery system,” Simmons said in March.

At the current rate of expenditure for the minisub, “you could build it out of 14-karat gold,” he said, according to the article.

John Pike, director of the military think tank GlobalSecurity.org, said it is puzzling that the program was allowed to limp along so long, the article said.

“It has not been a shining moment,” Pike said.

Designed to ride piggyback on the Los Angeles-class submarines Greeneville and Charlotte, both based at Pearl Harbor, the boxy, 8-foot-diameter ASDS is designed to sneak up close to shore with two crew and up to 16 SEALs (Sea, Air, Land) commandos, the article said.

According to the Honolulu Advertiser article, the mini-sub’s “skin is the material used on Stealth fighters, it can take and transmit pictures almost in real time, and its design allows for long-range operations.”

One of the minisub’s biggest advantages is that it keeps commandos dry before they exit the sub.

Existing SEAL Delivery Vehicles are convertible-like craft launched from “dry deck” shelters on larger submarines that expose troops to energy-sapping cold water long before they reach their final destination, the article said.

The Navy in 2004 celebrated the completion of a $47 million waterfront home for SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team 1 on 22 acres at Pearl City Peninsula that includes a 326,000-gallon freshwater test tank.

At the time, the team had 45 officers and 230 enlisted personnel — 93 of them SEALs, the article said.

Five Hawaii-based SEALs died in connection with an ill-fated reconnaissance mission and failed rescue last June 28 in the mountains of Afghanistan, the article said.

Delivery Of First ASDS

The Navy in July 2003 took delivery of the first ASDS, and it rode piggyback on the 360-foot Greeneville during a deployment to the Persian Gulf by Expeditionary Strike Group 1, the article said.

The entire program, including six minisubs and facilities in Hawaii and Little Creek, Va., was to cost $527 million. According to the Richmond (Va.) Times Dispatch, the subs originally were expected to cost $80 million each.

According to the Advertiser article, Lt. Cmdr. Steve Mavica, a spokesman for U.S. Special Operations Command in Florida, said that in November, the decision was made to restructure the ASDS program. Investment in hulls 2 and 3 was canceled.

More recently, the remainder of the program was canceled.

The Advertiser article also noted that a March 31 Government Accountability Office report on ASDS said that silver-zinc batteries were replaced with lithium-ion versions, and an aluminum tail was replaced by titanium.

Acoustic or noise-level problems — a critical issue for submarines — were “being addressed,” the report said.

In earlier tests, a propeller was the source of the most significant noise, and a new composite propeller was added, according to the article.

In October 2005, the ASDS experienced a propulsion-related failure, and the Navy decertified the ASDS from operational test readiness, the GAO report said.

“While the performance of ASDS-1 has been generally satisfactory, the overall reliability is still a concern,” Mavica said. “Given the importance of the mission and the need to ensure the safety of our personnel, (Special Operations Command) and the Navy must be completely confident in the reliability of the craft.”

Debbi McCallam, a Northrop Grumman spokeswoman, said vibration, noise and battery problems were identified, addressed and fixed last summer, according to the article.

McCallam said the rationale for the recent cancellation was based on the prospect that keeping the future boats in the program might cause a breach of the Nunn-McCurdy law, which requires the secretary of defense to certify that programs with a 25 percent cost increase are necessary for national security.

McCallam said Northrop Grumman is involved in a $69.4 million ASDS-1 improvement plan, and Special Operations Command could resurrect the larger program, the article said.

“Of course we’d like to begin construction of the next vessel as soon as possible, since we’ve got the history and expertise,” McCallam said.

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