KITTERY — The Navy’s commitment to repairing a nuclear submarine severely damaged by an arsonist last spring is wavering under the realities of mandatory budget cuts, officials say.
The Navy announced last summer that it intended to repair the USS Miami at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard with a goal of returning it to service in 2015. The cost of repairing the vessel would be about $450 million, which the Navy said would be cost-effective because the 22-year-old submarine could serve another 10 years.
But the repair has been postponed and the Navy is now rethinking its repair budget because of the mandatory cuts triggered by federal law this month.
“The Navy needs every submarine in our inventory. Restoring Miami remains a high priority. But it necessarily must compete with other high naval priorities during this period of restricted budgets,” said Navy Rear Adm. Rick Breckenridge, commander of Submarine Group 2 in Groton, Conn.
Portsmouth Naval Shipyard’s 4,700 civilian workers will be forced to take 22 days off without pay between April and the end of the federal fiscal year Sept. 30 under forced federal budget cuts.
Workers plan to rally Wednesday against the mandatory budget cuts.
Adding insult to injury for shipyard workers was another fire Monday aboard the submarine just three days after former shipyard worker Casey James Fury, 25, was sentenced to 17 years in prison for setting the fire that ravaged the USS Miami in dry dock at the Kittery shipyard during a 20-month overhaul.
The small fire, caused when sandblasting damaged a light fixture, was quickly doused with an extinguisher, said shipyard spokeswoman Deb White.
The fire set by Fury on May 23 caused extensive damage to forward compartments including the torpedo room, crew quarters and command and control. It took more than 100 firefighters to save the submarine. Two crew members, three shipyard firefighters and two civilian firefighters were hurt.
Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute, said any decision on the Miami’s future will likely be made next year when the Navy prioritizes its maintenance and repair projects. He said the Navy may be hard-pressed to justify spending so much money on the submarine.
“The business case for restoring this submarine was never all that strong. It’s not the latest submarine design and it’s turning out to be an expensive proposition,” Thompson said Monday.
Breckenridge made similar remarks after Fury was sentenced Friday in U.S. District Court in Portland, saying there was uncertainty due to the complexity and cost of the repairs.
“Now that sequestration impacts have been enforced and put into place, I’d tell you that uncertainty is even greater,” he said, referring to the mandatory cuts.
Sen. Susan Collins, who helped secure initial funding in the 2013 defense appropriations bill, said congressional inaction on the budget is threatening the repairs.
“The USS Miami represents a significant investment in our national security. That is why I repeatedly stressed the importance of repairing the submarine, returning it to the fleet, and the importance of repairing it at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery,” she said.
The repairs have implications for both Portsmouth Naval Shipyard workers and workers from Electric Boat in Groton, who expected to play a major role in the repair effort.
As it stands, the mandatory cuts will put projects at the shipyard a month behind schedule because of the furloughs through Sept. 30, said Metal Trades Council President Paul O’Connor.
O’Connor said the 17-year sentence imposed by a federal judge on Fury was too little given the amount of damage to the submarine and national security, and risk to firefighters.
“It’s such a painful chapter. But it’s part of our history. It’s part of our present. It’s part of our future because we’ll be dealing with it for a long time,” he said. “The repercussions from this fire will extend way beyond 17 years, especially if we lose this boat.”