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Budget cuts worry sub commander

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The Navy’s top submarine commander in the Pacific says budget issues won’t affect his ability to deploy submarines next year.

But Rear Adm. Phillip Sawyer said he’s concerned cuts to the civilian workforce at the nation’s naval shipyards will mean submarines won’t be ready to deploy as quickly in 2015 and beyond.

A hiring freeze has prevented shipyards from replacing many retired workers and doing as much maintenance work, he told the Associated Press in an interview at his Pearl Harbor headquarters on Monday.

That means a submarine that might have taken seven months to repair in the past may now have to spend eight or nine months in the shipyard.

"I am concerned in the out years, about the budget impact on the shipyards and their ability to fix my submarines," Sawyer said.

The Pacific Fleet Submarine Force, which Sawyer commands, has a tighter budget, too, but Sawyer would not disclose by how much.

He said he was protecting deployed submarines and sailors, and those preparing to deploy. Budget cuts, he said, would be felt elsewhere.

Sawyer, former captain of the Pearl Harbor-based sub USS La Jolla, said it is "more important than ever" for the submarine force to maintain high conduct and performance standards, because there might be a tendency for organizations receiving less money to want to relax them.

This is true for standards governing how sailors drive submarines, launch torpedoes or maintain their nuclear weapons.

"They have to remain high because they are critical areas where perfection or near perfection is always required," he said. "The nation expects no less when it comes to nuclear weapons or nuclear power or our ability to go fight a war."

Sawyer said he was also concerned about being able to invest in modernizing the Navy’s submarine force, saying that more countries are acquiring submarines and improving their technology. These nations will chip away at the dominance the U.S. now enjoys if the Navy isn’t able to continue investing in technology, he said.

"If we do nothing, the margins will close. And I think that’s what our imperative is: It’s to make sure that we’re keeping moving forward so that as they’re getting smarter and better, we’re still able to stay out there in front, whether it’s the Chinese or anybody else," Sawyer said.

Sawyer said Southeast Asia is one area where many countries are acquiring submarines, with Vietnam recently buying six from Russia, Malaysia already owning two and Thailand trying to buy some. Even Myanmar has expressed interest, he said.

"It’s getting busy," he said. "There’s a lot of submarines running around or going to be running around."

Investing in the technology isn’t something that can just be resumed after a hiatus, he warned. For example, someone researching submarine acoustics could leave the field if the money dries up.

"I am concerned as we look at the budget in the out years of our ability to continue to modernize," he said.

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