NEWPORT NEWS -- A Virginia ship-building company wants to produce the Navy's next three Trident submarines, sparking speculation that the Connecticut-based Electric Boat monopoly on submarine-building could be upset.

Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Co. has submitted a bid for the 15th Trident and options to produce the next two submarines, which are to be awarded in 1989 and 1990.

Newport News Shipbuilding entered the Trident bidding process at the urging of the Navy, which hopes to drive down the cost of the vessels through competition. The most recent Trident sub contract was awarded in May to Electric Boat and was worth $615 million. A fully equipped Trident submarine costs about $1.3 billion.

Navy officials said the next Trident contract is expected to be awarded in the spring of 1988. Until now, Electric Boat, the ship-building division of General Dynamics Corp., has been the only builder of the 560-foot, 18,000-ton submarines, which carry Trident missiles.

The proposal won praise from union officials representing workers at Newport News Shipbuilding. Winning a contract from the Navy for the Trident submarines would benefit the Hampton Roads economy, said Russell Axsom, president of Local 8888 of the United Steelworkers of America in Newport News. Axsom's union represents about 16,500 of the shipyard's blue-collar workers.

"We think it will be a boost to the economy in the area and a boost to the union," Axsom said. "We certainly have the people capable of doing the job."

A spokesman at Newport News, producer of the 688-class submarines, said the company's bid included $85 million for capital investments that would be necessary to produce the Trident. The official, Jack Schnaedter, said a portion of the money would be used to hire at least an additional 1,000 workers. The shipyard now employs about 28,000 workers, Schnaedter said.

While one or more Trident contracts could be a boon to Virginia's largest private employer, officials at Electric Boat said the absence of Trident work would have a devastating effect on its employment, requiring the dismissal of 12,500 of its 20,000 workers in Groton, Conn., and Quonset Point, R.I., over six years.

All 14 contracts for the $1.3 billion nuclear submarine have been awarded to Electric Boat.

Newport News disclosed that it "took exception" to the Navy's delivery schedule for the next Trident, which is expected in late 1993 or early 1994, according to a Navy spokesman, and indicated that it wants a delay in the construction schedule.

Schnaedter said the company did not specify in its proposal what amount of time would be needed to procure a submarine, which generally requires five to six years. But defense experts familiar with the program attributed the request for a delay to the company's lack of expertise in the program.

Gordon Adams, president of the Defense Budget Project, a Washington think tank, said the request was not unusual, as new bidders generally require more time than existing contractors to produce weapons systems.

"Newport News might expect that they could recoup their {$85 million} investment in later rounds," Adams said.

However, it was unclear whether the proposal could undermine Electric Boat, which has improved considerably its delivery time and costs of producing the subs since beginning procurement in 1974.

"My guess is that EB has some innate advantages in terms of having already made the tooling and having the program on line," Adams said.

Several Connecticut lawmakers who opposed opening up competition in the program at this late stage said that although they were disappointed that Newport News decided to bid, they remained confident that Electric Boat would retain future contracts.

"Electric Boat is fortunately entering the competitive bidding process for the Trident at the height of cost efficiency in the procurement," said Rep. Sam Gejdenson (D-Conn.) whose district includes Groton.

Gejdenson added, "In the long run I believe that awarding a Trident contract to Newport News will increase costs and decrease quality."

For several years, the Navy has attempted to lure Newport News into the Trident program, contending that competition would reduce costs and improve delivery dates.

Navy officials who favor competition say they are merely executing the Competition in Contracting Act, a 1984 law passed by Congress in response to massive cost overruns by sole-source producers of weapons system.