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A U.S. nuclear submarine’s port call in Singapore last week allowed the Navy to showcase its ability to operate in shallow coastal waters after questions about the fitness of its Littoral Combat Ship for use in Asia.
The Virginia-class USS North Carolina – which General Dynamics Electric Boat helped construct – was designed with littoral combat in mind, particularly for special operations and anti-mine warfare, commanding officer Richard Rhinehart told reporters last week. It was the submarine’s second visit to the region since its commissioning ceremony in 2008.
U.S. Navy officers in the Pacific fleet have raised concerns that another vessel, the Littoral Combat Ship, may lack the speed, range and electronic-warfare capabilities to operate in the vast Asian waters. President Barack Obama, who made a weeklong trip to the region to shore up ties with key allies, has said the U.S. would protect East China Sea islands administered by Japan that are claimed by China and reaffirmed defense-treaty obligations with the Philippines, embroiled in a dispute with China in the South China Sea.
“This is not the first Virginia-class to deploy to the region,” said Commander Rhinehart. “This does, however, represent a continued effort by the U.S. to send the best technology and capabilities into the Pacific theater.”
The North Carolina, which has been on its current deployment for four months, is the first class of submarine equipped with a periscope system consisting of two photonics masts with infrared and laser range-finding capability that makes it suitable for littoral waters, Rhinehart said. It can launch torpedoes and Tomahawk land attack missiles, has counter-mine capabilities and a nine-man lockout chamber to allow swimmers to exit, he said.
The Littoral Combat Ship, designed to operate in coastal waters, “might be better suited to operations” in the smaller Persian Gulf, the U.S. Government Accountability Office said in a report obtained by Bloomberg News last month. The Navy should consider buying fewer of the ships if its limitations prevent effective use in the Pacific, the report said, following others who have questioned the cost, mission and survivability in combat of the ship.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a Feb. 24 memo that “considerable reservations” led him to bar negotiations for any more than 32 of the vessels, 20 fewer than called for in the Navy’s $34 billion program.
The U.S. Navy last week awarded a $17.6 billion contract to General Dynamics Corp. and Newport News Shipbuilding for 10 Virginia-class submarines to be built beginning in fiscal 2014 and continuing on to fiscal 2018.
The deal is expected to help boost employment at General Dynamics’ Quonset Business Park Electric Boat production facility. In January, Electric Boat executives said the defense contractor planned to hire about 650 workers in North Kingstown to the 2,800 already employed there to handle the expected work for the new contract.
Operating in shallow waters is a bigger challenge for the Littoral Combat Ship because there are more objects for sound to bounce off, the mix of salt water and fresh water can cause changes in buoyancy, and there is a greater likelihood of encountering other ships such as fishing vessels, Rhinehart said.
The Philippines and the U.S. last week signed an agreement that will boost the rotational American troop presence in the Southeast Asian nation.
The U.S. is seeking to work cooperatively with China in the region, Obama said at a briefing in Manila with Philippine President Benigno Aquino. “Our goal is not to counter China, our goal is not to contain China,” he said. “Our goal is to make sure that international rules and norms are respected and that includes in the area of maritime disputes.”
“We have a lot of regional allies,” said the North Carolina’s Commander Rhinehart. “The entire Asia area is very important and we’re here with our partner nations trying to promote security and the rights of all nations large and small.” •