Home » Budget Industry » Navy Report: Submarine Industrial Base Can Maintain 2-Attack Boat Construction Rate, Bolstering Lawmakers’ Plans

Navy Report: Submarine Industrial Base Can Maintain 2-Attack Boat Construction Rate, Bolstering Lawmakers’ Plans

The Virginia-class attack submarine Pre-commissioning unit John Warner (SSN 785) is moved to Newport News Shipbuilding’s floating dry dock on Sept. 1, 2014. Huntington Ingalls Industries photo.

The Navy has confirmed that its submarine industrial base can continue building two Virginia-class attack submarines a year even while adding the Columbia-class ballistic-missile submarine to its workload, giving a key congressman confidence in the House’s plan to boost submarine procurement in the coming years.

In fact, according to a Navy report requested by lawmakers in the 2017 defense authorization bill, continuing to build two SSNs a year is not only “viable” but would “have a positive effect on the overall submarine industrial base cost and workload profiles” and “would provide benefit to Navy’s stack submarine force inventory.”

The Navy had previously planned to build just two subs a year for the foreseeable future – either two attack subs or one SSN and one SSBN. Based on the Columbia-class construction schedule, that would leave seven years between now and 2030 when the Navy only bought one attack sub a year, exacerbating an attack submarine shortfall the service is already facing.

While lawmakers have for a few years discussed not only maintaining the two-a-year rate for SSN construction but even bumping up to three or four in years when a SSBN isn’t procured, the Navy was a little slower to make any commitments. The service just this spring announced it was adding a second SSN to its Fiscal Year 2021 plans, the year it buys the first SSBN, and that it would consider purchasing three SSNs a year in the future.

Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.), the ranking member on the House Armed Services seapower and projection forces subcommittee, told USNI News today that the report amounted to “a very resounding affirmative from the Navy” on the industrial base capability, which was important because “they really were concerned that the bandwidth of submarine [industry capability] wasn’t wide enough to handle that amount of work, and for the Navy to come back with a very strong report saying, yep, we don’t have to reduce Virginia class in the Columbia class years, to me that needle really moved in terms of the Navy’s confidence, public confidence, in having all these concurrent efforts stay on track and perform.”

Courtney said the timing of this affirmation is important, since Navy negotiations with submarine builders General Dynamics Electric Boat and Newport News Shipbuilding for the Block V contract will begin next year, just ahead of the start of Columbia-class construction in 2021 and the introduction of the Virginia Payload Module in 2019. The House Armed Services Committee in its FY 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, which was passed by the full House of Representatives on July 14, authorized the Navy to buy 13 subs over five years in that block buy instead of 10 – two in 2021 and 2024, when the first two SSBNs are bought, and three a year in the other three years of the contract. Courtney said this report validates the “robust” spending plan HASC advocated in its bill and confirms that the industrial base is “starting to flex its muscles” ahead of the workload increase.

North Dakota (SSN 784) sits moored at the graving dock of General Dynamics Electric Boat prior to its christening ceremony in Groton, Conn. on Nov. 2, 2013. US Navy Photo

The report notes that limiting factors to increased SSN production are the shipbuilders’ workforce, shipyard facilities and supply base. Importantly, the report adds that maintaining two SSNs a year, which will result in seven additional boats being bought between now and 2030, “will be a challenge to the submarine industrial base that can be solved only if the shipyards are given sufficient time to adjust facility plans, develop their workforce, and expand the vendor base.”

Asked about that line, Courtney told USNI News that the 2018 defense bill’s push to buy three submarines a year sends a message to the shipbuilders that they should start addressing those three issues now.

“Spending money on equipment, hiring, this is a safe bet because Congress and the Navy are really in this for the long haul,” he said.
“In the wake of the Cold War downturn in terms of submarine construction, there really has been a hangover for some of these companies who were not able to absorb the downturn as well as the large shipyards were – in fact some of them went out of business – so I think there’s an inherent virtue in the NDAA language that I think will send a really strong message of confidence, particularly to the folks who are at the second and third tiers of submarine production.”

He added concern, though, that while the HASC has done its part to support this boost in submarine construction, support from outside the HASC and the Navy will be needed as these two prime shipbuilders ramp up their capacity. He pointed to the Department of Labor’s apprenticeship grant program, which in 2017 was funded at $95 million but in the 2018 House Appropriations labor subcommittee bill was cut completely. Courtney said there was already talk among some lawmakers to push back against this cut to the apprenticeship program, which has already been important to Electric Boat as it increases the size of its workforce.

“There’s a skills gap: the jobs are there, the skills aren’t, and there’s just no question that in terms of filling that gap it’s programs like DOL’s apprenticeship grant that solve that problem,” Courtney said.
“National defense and shipbuilding is really an all-of-government effort,” and he called upon other committees to make the right investments to support industry as well.

The Navy’s commitments to change its plans moving forward in light of this report were tepid, though it strongly and repeatedly outlined the benefits to maintaining this two-a-year SSN construction pace.

Despite saying that “maintaining a steady [Virginia Class Submarine] procurement cadence would result in added labor and economic order quantity (EOQ) efficiencies, optimization of production facilities, and elimination of costly production surges and gaps, reducing VCS costs across the respective block buys,” the service didn’t actually follow through with a promise to do so, instead saying only that it would analyze the cost of maintaining a two-a-year production rate.

Based on the previous Force Structure Assessment that stated the Navy needed 48 attack submarines, the Navy would face a shortfall in its SSN force beginning in the mid-2020s. The service has since stated it now needs 66 SSNs, making the shortfall described in this 2016 chart significantly greater due to the higher submarine requirement. USNI News Graphic

Courtney, on the other hand, said Congress is pushing hard to buy as many SSNs as the industrial base can support, given that the Navy was already facing the prospect of a seven-sub shortfall compared to its previous requirement to have 48 submarines – a shortfall that was drastically deepened when the Navy announced earlier this year in a new Force Structure Assessment that it needed 66 submarines to meet its global commitments.

By providing advance procurement and economic order quantity funding in the 2018 defense bill ahead of the Block V contract being negotiated, “we’re really – in a very specific and well thought out way – demonstrating that we’re going to shorten that bathtub as quickly as humanly possible,” Courtney said of the shortfall.
“Certainly Congress is pushing as hard as we can, now at least, to shorten that length of time where the fleet is not going to meet what the Force Structure Assessment now says is required.”

  • Western

    Remember this the next time Congress looks to close a facility like Mare Island Naval Shipyard to “save money.”
    ps – what is the state of the US military and civilian nuclear power plant infrastructure?

    • @USS_Fallujah

      I’d say the Military nuclear power infrastructure is in great shape, the civilian side not so much. Important to note, however that the plant used on a CVN or SSN and one used by a commercial power company have about as much in common as a 747 and a Kite. Sure they both fly…

    • Mare Island did not help themselves out by sinking a submarine in the process due to deep rooted low standards in construction control and safety. Heck the Navy had to implement a whole new program in construction safety to fill all the holes Mare Island had.

  • @USS_Fallujah

    I’m curious if they are looking at other shipyards to fabricate individual hull sections rather than components. If I understand the issue they primary bottleneck is having workers & space to fabricate the hull sections at NNS & EB while assembling the SSNs, being able to outsource one of the 5 segments of an SSN would open up the work flow significantly (though bringing in a new builder would also increase the program risk, as if they were only doing that same segment for each SSN/SSBN their failure would endanger both programs and potentially bring all sub building to a halt while they resolved an issue.

    • NavySubNuke

      I don’t think that is the issue — I’m fairly certain the bottleneck is in the final assembly portion not the module construction.

  • Aj jordan

    Only thing I don’t like is all subs are named after states now, why not name subs after fish and keep tradition? and if they do name them after states only SSBN continent destroyers should be named after a state……

    • @USS_Fallujah

      That ship (pun intended) has sailed. As Rickover said (ok he probably never really said this) “Fish can’t vote”
      I’m actually ok with naming SSNs & SSBNs after states as that was the traditional name for Capital Ships, and with no more BBs and the sub force clearly filling that capability void, it works well enough. I similarly don’t have a beef with naming LCS after small cities, as it rather fitting to name a ship you don’t want to serve on after a city you don’t want to visit.

      • El_Sid

        I guess the one big problem with naming subs after voters – err, states – is that they’re just not very visible. Especially for coastal states, it would make more sense to give their names to surface ships which voters can identify with more readily. Even if you stick with states, it would be better to save inland state names for SSBNs which have a lower profile than the attack boats.

    • That would be “sea creatures” not just “fish” – often confused. In the 21st century there is a penchant to name ships after “swamp creatures”. All the more reason for DJT to drain the swamp.

  • sferrin

    How far we have fallen. Gone are the days of turning out four or five -688s AND one or two Ohios every year.

    • NavySubNuke

      Never mind when we built the 41 for freedom in about 7 years or so while also building SSNs at the same time!

      • sferrin

        Compare to China’s BRAND NEW nuclear submarine assembly hall:

        “The massive new assembly hall, which measures more than 430,000 square feet, has enough room for two parallel production lines; each production line has one half dedicated to assembling and attaching together submarine modules, and the other half dedicated to finishing the hull with quieting measures like anechoic tiles. That’s enough space for four SSN’s to be built simultaneously (two sets of modules being assembled at one end, and another pair of assembled hulls being fitted out before launch). Once completed, the SSN is rolled off the line and into the ocean. The assembly hall can also handle construction of the next generation SSBN, the Type 096”

      • There was also at least 4 other shipyards building submarines at the time. Mare Island CA, New York Shipbuilding, Ingalls in MS, and Portsmouth NH. Today only EB in CT and NNSHI in VA are capable of building nuclear submarines.

        • NavySubNuke


    • Construction methods have changed, some of the facilities that built many of the 688’s, like being built on slip ways in smaller sections, do not support 774 construction needs, just as the facilities that built the Nautilus and diesels boats could not support 688 construction. As the article stated, facilities need to be updated to support that type of output. It IS withing the ability to build that many a year, but it will take upgrades to do it, and those upgrades can be expensive.

  • at some point allowing a shortfall, why not keep the LA classeses till the reactor is truly exhausted? One could throw a few hundred million per frame at them to keep them quieter, and use them like a diesel sub, aka forward deployed, no need to stream around at 15-20 knots, just push them in choke points, stay submerged at 5 knot speed for 2 months, return home. Probably gets more life out of the reactor as well? Of course, looking at the scrap list, some of those subs were retired after mid-life refueling time was there, so there is a set of subs that can supplement the force out there. How those are used may be more important in order to maximize effectiveness. just a humble opinion.

    • Anybody ever thought of leasing the older attack subs with some life left in them to our allies (i.e. the Aussies)?

      • El_Sid

        Oz and nuclear is complicated, but realistically it’s not politically possible for the RAN for the foreseeable future.

        The other things are manning – SSNs need a whole heap of specialist personnel which most navies don’t have (and those that do are generally short of) – and stuff like berthing.

        • john

          You are certainly correct. It would take years of training before Australia could man those SSNs. But honestly they would be ideal for its navy. But how much of the LA class systems can be exported?

          • “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step” – Lao Tzu

            They’ve got a lot more than a thousand miles to traverse – go nuc Clyde.

          • El_Sid

            It’s not so ideal for a navy when the electorate won’t consider the idea – the politics of nuclear in Oz is complicated, but effectively rules out SSNs for now.

            The other aspect is that nuclear boats are not like fossil-fuel vessels, which graduallly decline in utility with age. Nukes have pretty fixed lifetimes, determined by the need to a)stay safe and b)have expensive refuellings. Given that the USN needs every boat it can get at the moment, it’s going to be squeezing every last bit of life from the 688’s, they would need a lot of money spending on them before they could be passed on – probably more than Oz is spending on very capable AIP boats. It just doesn’t quite add up.

      • they should have offered that to the Canadians years ago when they needed some and could not get out of their own way to procure new ones. The Aussies are going to pay as much for new French designed Diesels as we would have for an LA class. Probably your idea has a ton of merit, sell them some of the retired young LA Class where they could do some quieting techniques, say for $300 mil a pop and the Aussies could spend literally triple that and still be well under what they will pay for the new Diesels.

    • Hull life is just as much as a factor. The hulls wereally designed and certified for X years only. Recertification the hull is not a simple, cheap or quick process.

      • may not be, but if the class is premature on retirement, then the hull has not been able to reach X years as you state.

        • We are not paying off Submarines early anymore and all current designs are for 1 core life cycles, no refueling required. So early retirements are not an option, in fact the Navy is trying to figure out how to squeeze as much life as possible out of the current fleet, since we are about 20 SSN’s short on strategic requirements. Additionally, the current US policy prohibits the sharing of nuclear technology, even reactors.

  • You can never have too many attack boats!

  • john

    Which would everyone prefer: a Ford class carrier or six or more Virginia class SSNs? I am going with the latter choice.

    • FelixA9

      Which would you prefer: breathing or a beating heart?

  • John King

    Ev Pyatt (former Assistant Secretary of the Navy (Shipbuilding and Logistics) testifying before the Congress the other day basically said forget what Navy and shipbuilders are saying. Put the increased quantities out there and make them expand. That’s what they did with the Reagan build-up. Why al this “we can’t do it?” attitude.