Members of Congress press Navy to end opposition to diesel-sub exports

July 02, 1992|By Richard H. P. Sia | Richard H. P. Sia,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Members of Congress are engaged in an election-year effort to "save American jobs" by trying to reverse the Navy's long-standing opposition to diesel submarine exports -- even though U.S. shipbuilders seem reluctant to dive into the market and haven't built a conventionally powered sub for more than 30 years.

The idea of expanding the customer base for U.S.-made submarines won a qualified endorsement early last month from the House, which passed a fiscal 1993 defense authorization bill with language ordering a reappraisal of Navy policy. The Navy has opposed sales of diesel subs, arguing that modern U.S. technology and construction techniques would end up in foreign hands.

Other moves are being contemplated on Capitol Hill, including the drafting of a Senate appropriations bill in September -- only weeks before the 1992 election -- with a provision that would strip the Navy ofmuch of its veto power in the export licensing process.

But in coming months, the battle over submarine exports is more likely to help legislators curry favor from shipbuilding interests, shipyard workers and labor unions than to drum up new business for the struggling industry. A senior shipbuilding executive, who declined to be identified, said the legislative maneuvering would only raise false hopes for thousands of workers who may eventually find themselves out of work.

U.S. entry into the export market is "not very realistic because there are a lot of suppliers of diesel subs in the world, and the market's not that good," the executive said. "None of us has a product to sell, but in an election year, it's easy for a congressman to say, 'By God, we have to sell because the Germans, British and French are doing it.'

"It's all smoke. It's good political rhetoric," he said. "You stir up interesting political chatter when you have folks around the neighborhood all revved up about exports, but by the time they figure it all out, the election's over."

The U.S. intelligence community has concluded that international sales of diesel submarines are nearing a saturation point. Many prospective buyers are finding they no longer can afford the $300 million-plus price tag for a small boat that has more prestige value than actual application in projecting a credible defense of local coastlines, one analyst said.

"Foreign submarine builders are not exactly dancing in the streets for the amount of business they're getting," the analyst said.

Navy officials have already dug in their heels on the issue, with the Secretary of the Navy's office warning last week in a special report to Congress that the United States would risk losing its "margin of technological superiority" in underseas warfare by selling diesel subs to foreign navies, no matter what the economic benefits to U.S. workers and their employers. A copy of the report, which has not been publicly released, was obtained by The Sun.

While recognizing the need to keep domestic production lines busy, the report said that "to the extent that a potential diesel submarine construction project would draw on U.S. resources, it has the potential to tap into the state-of-the-art technology used in U.S. nuclear-powered submarines."

Advocates of submarine exports, such as John J. Stocker, president of the Shipbuilders Council of America, have heard the Navy's objections before and regard its warnings of technology losses as grossly exaggerated. The shipbuilding industry, which totally dependent on one customer -- the Navy -- finds itself in "a truly awful situation" because it has few remedies to offset declining Navy business, he said.

On Capitol Hill, several legislators have been trying to chip away TC at the wall of Navy opposition for months, each of them for strong political and economic reasons. They include:

* Rep. Owen B. Pickett, a member of the House Armed Services Committee whose district in Norfolk and Virginia Beach is suffering from a shrinking Navy budget. The region's largest defense contractor is one of the nation's two submarine manufacturers, Tenneco's Newport News Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Co.

The House committee adopted the Virginia Democrat's language ordering the Navy to examine the feasibility of submarine exports, declaring in a report accompanying the 1993 defense authorization bill that foreign sales "may provide a means to maintain critical shipbuilding capabilities."

With no new submarine orders from the Navy expected before 1998, there will be "a further contraction of the American shipbuilding industry unless new sources of orders become available," the committee said.

* Rep. Sam Gejdenson, a Democrat whose southeastern Connecticut district is home to the nation's other submarine builder, General Dynamics' Electric Boat division.

As early as April 1990, Mr. Gejdenson sponsored a bill that would have allowed shipyards and suppliers to build vessels and components for U.S. allies -- mainly, he explained at the time, "to maintain our manufacturing base."

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