HAMPTON, Va. – U.S. Pacific Fleet is looking to build up the skill level and workload of sailors assigned to the two submarine tenders in Guam, but the viability of any potential solutions with industry may hinge on decisions that have yet to be made, PACFLEET’s director of fleet maintenance said.
Years ago, Rear Adm. Stephen Williamson explained, the submarine tenders got a reputation of not being able to handle tasks beyond their most basic work. The persistence of that reputation led submarine squadron commanders to begin flying in teams of civilians from the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard, which meant the sub tender crews had less work and therefore less opportunity to become proficient in their jobs.
Wednesday, Williamson said at the American Society of Naval Engineers’ annual Fleet Maintenance and Modernization Symposium, “what happens now, the tender folks say I can do that job, I can name that tune in 10 days, and the shipyard says I can do it in seven, and the [destroyer] squadron will screen it to the shipyard – which then means that the sailors are gaining absolutely no skill whatsoever because they’re going to stay and do some other work while the shipyard does their own work.”
He said these flyaway teams from Hawaii are doing most of the nuclear work in Guam, as well as some non-nuclear work that they can perform faster. Guam hosts about 600 sailors for the two sub tenders – about 200 are at sea on one tender at any given time, with the second tender pierside and 400 sailors ashore to do repair work on subs at the pier or Military Sealift Command ships in Guam.
“The repair potential is vast,” Williamson said of the ashore capability, and “they’re not using their full potential” with the submarine squadron’s reliance on flyaway teams from Pearl Harbor.
The fleet maintenance director said he visited Guam last fall when he first started his new job, and he said he was impressed with the USS Frank Cable (AS-40) crew and was confident in their ability to perform all the tasks required of them. Still, if work isn’t coming their way, “it is a self-fulfilling prophesy … because you’re not going to screen the work to them and they’re going to get worse.”
Explaining a recent example that came to his attention, Williamson said a submarine needed piping work done, and the tender said they could complete the job in four weeks compared to the two weeks Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard quoted.
“There is some discussion that has to happen between SUBPAC and the squadron on, even if the professional technical civilians of the shipyard can do it faster, you’re going to have to balance out faster with training, with lost training opportunity,” he said.
The Commander of Submarine Force, PACFLEET (SUBPAC) commands both the sub tender and the submarine squadron, Williamson told USNI News after his presentation, making him equally responsible for keeping the submarines operational and keeping the sub tender crews proficient. As a result, SUBPAC is trying to gather more information on all the factors at play – tender crew training, submarine operational availability, cost, Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard workload and more – to make more informed decisions.
In that recent example of the piping work, the two-week difference in the work estimates came down to the sub tender crew being unable to quickly put together technical drawings and a technical work package, something that the shipyard crew does regularly. Williamson said, noting that investing in some technical help for the sailors could have made them more competitive with the shipyard in that case.
Williamson told USNI News that the piping repair was handled about as well as it could have been – the squadron tasked the work to the shipyard, but sailors from the tender observed the work to learn from the civilian technicians, though that is not always the case.
Going forward, Williamson said he would like to see less reliance on Pearl Harbor workers. He would like to see the sub tender sailors ashore do more work on surface ships. And he would like to see the sailors stationed there have some sort of opportunity to learn from more experienced workers in industry, gaining skills and potentially earning certifications during their assignment in Guam.
But mapping out a plan to accomplish all that is complicated, since so many questions still remain about the future workload on the island, Williamson said. But he said he hoped his presentation at the conference would kick off a discussion about what it would take to get industry interested in having a greater presence on the island and working with the sailors stationed there.
Still unknown is the exact number of submarines that will be homeported in Guam – it is four today but could increase to five – the Military Sealift Command’s future presence there, and what the addition of U.S. Marines to the island will mean. Though amphibious ships will not be stationed at Guam, “those amphibs that come to pick up the Marines will inevitably break at some point and have to be repaired. Where and how” is the question in his mind, he said.
If no additional maintenance workload ultimately comes to Guam, “then really what we’re lacking is a formal structure for our sailors to be trained, and we can direct that without any of you all [in industry] there at all,” Williamson told industry. But if the workload does increase and there is room for more contractors on the island, “we’ve seen other successful models elsewhere, in almost every place where I’ve ever worked, where we’ve got civilian technicians on site all the time” working directly with the sailors. He cited a collaborative effort between sailors and industry in Connecticut, home to General Dynamics Electric Boat and Naval Submarine Base New London, and said that setup couldn’t be directly applied to Guam but could provide some lessons learned. He said that ultimately the solution for the future of maintenance at Guam needed to look like something in between having a full-blown intermediate maintenance facility on the island with not enough work to do, and having no additional presence on the island and constantly flying out teams from Pearl Harbor.
“Ultimately we think there’s a need for some partnership with the sailors,” he said, and the nature of that requirement will be refined as the Navy further refines its vision for the future of operations in Guam.