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VADM Johnson: Navy Must Reliably Execute 60-Month Attack Sub Construction Before Upping Build Rates

USS Illinois (SSN-786) conducts sea trials in 2016. US Navy Photo

The Navy and industry must prove they can reliably build a Virginia-class attack submarine in just 60 months before talks start about increasing the quantity of boats built each year, the Navy’s top uniformed acquisition official told USNI News.

While talks continue about the submarine industry’s workload and how much that workload can be increased – whether industry can handle not only the addition of the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine program and the Virginia Payload Module but also an increase to two Virginia-class SSNs every year or even three in some years – those intimately involved in the Virginia-class program are closely monitoring the time it takes to build an SSN and deliver it to the operational fleet.

Vice Adm. David Johnson, the principal military deputy to the assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development and acquisition – and a former Virginia-class program manager and program executive officer for submarines – said achieving and preserving the shorter construction timeline has to trump greater quantity when talking about the future of SSN construction.

The Navy and its two shipyards, General Dynamics Electric Boat and Huntington Ingalls Industries’ Newport News Shipbuilding, have already reduced the delivery timeline by two years and cut cost by 20 percent, all while adding in greater capabilities through block upgrades, Johnson said. By the end of the Block IV submarine production, the yards will be on 60-month construction cycles, followed by three months of testing and a three-month post-shakedown availability, for a total of a 66-month delivery timeline.

“We have to achieve that if we’re actually going to do Columbia on time and even have anybody want to discuss potentially adding a third ship that’s a Virginia-class,” he told USNI News when asked how the Navy balances the shorter construction timeline versus wanting to produce more submarines per year.

Vice Adm. David Johnson. US Navy Photo

“Most important: do what’s the plan, get that right. Build the enabling infrastructure, supplier base, the people, the shipbuilder facilities,” he said.
“We have a pretty good plan. Our intent is to work that plan, that’s what we do, so we don’t, in fact, grow those timelines, because longer timelines, more man hours, more people, you’re late, more money – that’s usually the wrong direction and that’s not what this enterprise is all about. We’re all about faster, less expensive, and better – that ought to be our mantra going into anything in the future.”

Johnson said that ultimately Congress will decide how many subs per year to fund, but cautioned that the sub-industry is seeing workload growth not experienced since the 1980s and that his priority now is following that plan to take time and cost out of SSN production.

Capt. Michael Stevens, the current Virginia-class submarine program manager, told USNI News at the conference that, despite the last two SSNs missing their intended delivery dates, he was confident the program is moving in a good direction today.

“They’re coming in shorter and shorter. We’re contracting them shorter and shorter, so because sometimes we pulled that challenge so tight we haven’t quite made it – which is good, that means it was a good challenge,” he said.
“We’ve taken a year and a half out of the build. That’s impressive. And when we were doing 84 months, that was [delivering one submarine] a year. Now we’re doing two a year in 66 months. So we’re on the right slope, the builders are performing with great quality – that’s the other thing, we’re delivering these boats with excellent quality and they’re coming out of the post-shakedown availability even faster because of that. So all said and done, by the end of Block IV we’re going to be delivering these ships 48 months faster as compared to Block I boats to the fleet – that’s amazing and at two per year. So we’re very satisfied with the performance today, it’s a challenge and we want to keep challenging.”

Stevens noted that the addition of the Columbia and the Virginia Payload Module would be a tough transition for the Navy-industry team, “successful programs see the transition and manage the transition, and that’s really the hard part. And I think we have the right team onboard with the shipbuilders to do it.”

Artist’s concept of the Virginia Payload Module.

After buying the Ohio-class SSBNs in the 1980s and 1990s, submarine production dropped off, with the Navy buying just one or even no SSNs a year. Virginia-class submarine production revved up the two shipyards to a current two-a-year rate – this is the first year in recent history the Navy has both bought two submarines and delivered two submarines, Commander of U.S. Submarines Forces Vice Adm. Joseph Tofalo said at the conference. With the addition of the Columbia-class boomers, though, the Navy’s current plans include just one SSN in years the service also buys an SSBN, due to industrial base capacity and federal budget limitations. This spring the Navy formally announced its intention to add a second SSN in Fiscal Year 2021, when the Navy buys its first SSBN, but talks are still underway about the ability to continue that two-a-year pace, or even bump to three boats in years without Columbia-class acquisition.

This discussion of two or three a year matters greatly, as combatant commanders see a rise in threats around the globe and continue to request more and more attack submarines for their areas of responsibility. The Navy formally bumped its SSN requirement from 48 boats to 66, and the service would never reach today’s production plans. Building two a year in every year would get the Navy to 66 SSNs 2048, but of course leadership would like to get there sooner if feasible. Program Executive Officer for Submarines Rear Adm. Michael Jabaley said at the conference that the Navy is making an “incredibly strong effort” to insert the second submarine every year in the shipbuilding plan.

Still, despite that need for more hulls, Johnson’s comments served as a reminder that cost, schedule and quality had to remain top priorities for the sub-construction program, regardless of how many boats a year the Navy ultimately ends up buying.

Johnson, speaking to reporters after his remarks, said he could not guess what the ultimate shipbuilding pace would be, with that decision being in Congress’s hands, but he said lawmakers have been supportive of submarine development and acquisition efforts. Additionally, he said there is “united agreement at the Department (of Defense) level that we really do need submarines. Undersea is an advantage for the U.S. Navy; we want to sustain that advantage, so investing in capacity and upgrades, new technology – those are all things that are supported as we budget.”

  • DaSaint

    As stated so aptly by another poster in another thread, funding and time are two things we have in limited quantities these days, unlike the early days of the conversion of SSNs to boomers. So it’s good to see both cost and time to build these SSNs being reduced by our industrial base: our 2 remaining nuclear submarine shipyards.

    • NavySubNuke

      Thank you for the compliment — couldn’t agree more!!

      • CaptainJP

        “Real work takes real time” was an axiom I came to use, when I supported SSBN construction at EB in the mid-1980’s, as the backlog of 688’s and the 3rd thru 8th Trident SSBNs were being delivered. Assembling two crews of 150+ and taking the boat to sea during the last two years of accelerated construction shows what was possible as the last cold war peaked.

        • NavySubNuke

          Exactly – and we can get back there but we need time and money and a stable funding commitment from congress to do so. The block buying of Virginia’s and the eventual block buying of Columbia’s will certainly help with that.
          The apprenticeship programs EB has been running for the last few years are also a key factor in getting there and are just now really starting to bear fruit. Hopefully they are able to keep it up. The welders working on our boats are without a doubt the best welders in the world and we need to make sure they are constantly working and training those who will fill in behind them.

      • DaSaint

        You’re welcome!

  • Duane

    The program managers are focusing on careful management of construction of a mature, but evolving, platform. Their performance is good and getting better. We’ve many more Virginias to build and deploy, so this is imporant. This institutional knowledge will spill over into construction of the Colombias too … and additional classes to come, such as an SSGN replacement, and the follow-on to the Virginia class. We’ve already seen a downward trend on the estimated delivery costs of the Colombia

    Good work, guys’n gals!

  • Ed L

    Crap the Navy is in trouble. Years to train a crew or build a ship. The Navy needs to go on War footing. Stop the Monday through Friday. When I did training before joining the Fleet we got Sunday off that it. no three day weekends due to holidays. In November and December in 72 we got sundays and thanksgiving and Christmas of then back to work. I PCS the day after New Years. It helped when I got to sea duty. Underway was 14 to 20 hours a day if we didn’t have a drill or real emergency in the middle Of the night. I use to take
    Naps right after chow before they called continue ships work. Underway refuelings were in the middle of the night or anytime around the clock.

    • Nu Tron

      That must have been when ships were made of wood and men were ….well, when I drilled holes in the ocean we worked an 18 hour day, 6 on 12 off + drills. if you were working 14 to 20 hours you were surface navy. Subs are like spacecrafts everything needs to be tripled checked and be near perfect. Any little problem could cost lives. You do not want to lose a nuke boat. I think efficiencies need to be increased, work smarter not longer. Burned out crews make mistakes and they don’t stick around the Navy long. My daughter will be joining a fast boat soon as a nuke JO. She wants to be there and will get the job done. We want the best and brightest on those boats and not burn them out before their prime.Use the latest modern industrial engineering processes to boost efficiencies to get the boats built faster and better.