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CNO: ‘No Surprises’ in GAO Report on Submarine Readiness Challenges

The Los Angeles-class submarine USS Bremerton (SSN 698) transits Puget Sound while returning to Bremerton, Wash., for decommissioning. The 37-year-old Bremerton, commissioned March 28, 1981, is scheduled to begin the inactivation and decommissioning process at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in July. U.S. Navy photo.

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson said there are “no surprises” in a recent Government Accountability Office report that found the Navy has lost more than $1.5 billion and thousands of operational days over the past decade due to attack submarines caught in maintenance delays or sitting idle while awaiting an availability.

According to the Nov. 19 report, “The Navy has started to address challenges related to workforce shortages and facilities needs at the public shipyards. However, it has not effectively allocated maintenance periods among public shipyards and private shipyards that may also be available to help minimize attack submarine idle time.”

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Richardson, in a media call on Thursday during his Thanksgiving visit to USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75), told USNI News that he found “no surprises in that report. Every bit of information in that is information we’re very, very aware of. We’ve been talking about the maintenance challenges at the public shipyards for some time, so no surprises there.”

The Navy this year released a 20-year, $21-billion plan to optimize and modernize its four public shipyards that work on attack submarines. But in the short term, Richardson said the yard readiness situation is “a very complex and stressed environment.”

The four yards are digging out of maintenance backlogs that built up due to insufficient manpower, unexpected work popping up once a ship got into the yard and other factors. The attack submarine force faced the brunt of the delays, though, because the yards prioritize ballistic-missile submarines (SSBNs) and aircraft carriers above the attack subs (SSNs).

Several instances have occurred where an attack sub idled at the public yard because the workforce was focused on a higher-priority ship, or where an SSN couldn’t even get into the yard because there was no capacity to work on it. Private shipbuilders Newport News Shipbuilding and General Dynamics Electric Boat have asked to help take on some of the SSN repair work the Navy can’t handle, and there has been discussion on how early to award that work to the private sector versus wait and see if the Navy can handle it itself.

These readiness challenges, though, come as operational commanders are asking for more and more attack subs to support their areas of responsibility, and subs are increasingly being requested to support high-end training with carrier strike groups, with P-8A aircraft and with each other for sub-on-sub training. As demand increases and readiness remains a challenge, the inventory may drop into the mid-40s, compared to a requirement for 66, due to planned decommissionings.

“In terms of the impact the attack submarine force has on the strategic environment, that’s also exacerbated by the fact that we’re [facing] a declining force level right now. Even as we build two Virginias a year, we’re taking submarines out of the inventory as they decommission. And so Navy leadership, including the Submarine Force leadership, Adm. [Charles] Richard, Adm. [Tom] Moore at [Naval Sea Systems Command – very, very focused on this, and so we’ll continue to adapt. All of those things you mentioned in terms of schedule adjustments, the back-and-forth in terms of taking advantage of all of the capacity in both the public and the private sector – that’s something that we talk about very very frequently as we try to optimize our way through these challenges,” Richardson told USNI News.

  • Curtis Conway

    More units of less expensive construction would enable the Navy to procure, operate, maintain more units on a similar budget. The current Fuel Cell AIP SSK boats contained in a fast hull-form with modern electric propulsion could provide more quiet units for Regional Tasking by the Unified Combatant Commanders. These boats would not be used as direct support for any Carrier Task Force, or any other task require long runs at high speed, but it would have a sprint capability for short distances/periods.

    The USS Albacore SS 569 was one of the fastest Diesel Electric Submarines to ever sail in the US Navy. That is the fast hull-form for our new AIP SSn. At between 3,500 to 5,000 ton submerged displacement sufficient room will be provided to contain the Soryu or Dolphin II AIP SSK configuration modified for two of our new little KRUSTY nuclear plants to provide the heat for the Sterling Engines. This boat does not have to surface during patrol if not required. In fact they could cross any ocean without surfacing.

    • NavySubNuke

      Don’t hold your breath waiting on those KRUSTY plants.
      Especially since even with them your theorized SSn wouldn’t be able to more than 4-6 knots. I’d rather shoot myself in the face than transit from San Diego to Pearl – never mind Japan – at 4-6 knots. Especially since 3000-5000 ton boat doesn’t exactly leave a lot of room for creature comforts….

      • Centaurus

        What ?!?…no hot-tub ? At least the Typhoon-Class gets to have a hot tub.

      • Curtis Conway

        The submariners in my life brag about their time on NR1, not jogging around Sherwood Forest.

  • DaSaint

    How much do the UK and French SSNs cost?

    The Royal Navy once ruled the seven seas, but was eventually eclipsed by a great industrial beamoth.

    History does like to repeat itself, if we don’t learn from it.

    • NavySubNuke

      Final Astute is apparently going to cost $1.5B pounds which is about $2B dollars. They are about 318 feet long vs. Virginia’s 377 ft (non-VPM Virginia’s that is). The two ships are actually comparable in submerged displacement though because Astute has a 37 foot beam vs. Virginia’s 33 foot beam.
      Seawolf is 353 feet with a 40 foot beam by comparison.

  • NavySubNuke

    The shipyards were already in bad shape even before the hiring freeze forced on them by sequestration. That is what really broke our SSN maintenance since what workers were left were dedicated to our CVNs and SSBNs. USS Boise was the poster child for this but she was only a problem because they shipyard couldn’t get USS Augusta out on time so there was no where to put her.
    Things are getting better but it is going to take years to fully fix the issues at the shipyards. You don’t just grow thousands of experienced and competent workers overnight. Look at what happened to USS Miami as the most egregious example of what bad staffing can lead to.
    That said the problems are not insurmountable and things really are getting better. The private shipyards are rapidly getting better at performing maintenance tasks they haven’t performed in years. The SSBN refueling overhauls will be over soon as Wyoming and Louisiana will soon have their second (and final) cores loaded. The fact that SSN force structure will continue to decline as we retire LA’s faster than congress is willing to buy new VA’s to replace them will actually also help though it isn’t exactly a good thing.
    The worst thing we could do is replace our highly successful SSNs with low/no capability replacements that lack the speed, endurance, and capabilities essential to the continued success of our attack submarine force. The surface fleet is already facing unprecedented threat from ASCMs and ASBMs — making our submarine force less capable and more vulnerable just so that we can have more of them won’t help the Navy deter conflict and it certainly won’t help us fight and win a war should deterrence fail.

    • Andy

      Fully agree. The kicker is that the fire on MIAMI wasn’t started by one of the skilled trades, but rather a painter. That guy had some real issues that should have been caught in some screening process somewhere. The loss of the MIAMI definitely represented an alignment of holes in the Swiss Cheese model that laid bare just how vulnerable a submarine in overhaul can be to malicious or negligent action. As an aside, I cringe when the MIAMI is used as “evidence” that we need to shut down Portsmouth Naval; I don’t think it’s fair to lay her loss only on Portsmouth Naval; due to systemic weaknesses that existed at the time, the same thing could have happened at any of the public yards. As the only public yard to focus solely on SSN work, we need Portsmouth now more than ever IMO.

      • Mike Mulligan

        sand blaster

        • NavySubNuke

          I think he was actually a fire watch… the lowest possible job since all he did was sit there with a fire extinguisher all day in case a welder accidentally lit something on fire.

          • Mike Mulligan

            I was involved with the investigation. He was a sand blaster, a horrible job… He didn’t want to work all day, so he walked away from his job. Went in the submarine, to the officers quarters…he lit a bunk on fire.
            It took the NCIS months to figure out it was actually sobotodge.
            The first swipe of the navy, it was from a welding vacuum cleaner. Welding sparks simmered for hours before it set the whole sub on fire.
            The most humorous thing that went on, the navy sent out a emergency sub fleet notification saying vacuum cleaners are extremely dangerous. Can you just imagine if you were underwater and heard this.
            More troubling, I don’t think the navy captured the true motivations of this nut case…they just found the easyous one. It ended in a court deal to plead guilty, not gone through the courts. It looked like a coverup to me.

  • James Bowen

    I think it is time for the Navy to reopen Mare Island, Hunter’s Point, Brooklyn, and Philadelphia.

  • Curtis Conway

    Well, he’s almost convinced me on the new smaller SSN Fast Attack, but I would like to see numbers, and speed of construction estimates. I like the 3D approach, and HII and Bath (and others) Have grown through that design, development, production process and it is faster. Now we just need enough qualified workers. The education system in this country has been working too hard at separation of treasure from students (and their parents), and not on ‘true education’ and identification & development of G-d given individual talent. The country suffers for it.

    If you want to witness the ultimate Plantation, go to a University campus, and witness how sacrificial the faculty is . . . and it is appalling.

    • NavySubNuke

      The Navy tried to build a smaller and cheaper SSN… and found that it couldn’t. Just as we tried with our SSBNs. The Navy cut everything it could, except stealth, for the Virginia program and still ended up with a nearly 7,000 ton submarine the Navy now recognizes is too small given the need to incorporate LDUUVs and missiles larger than 21 inches.
      As far as the design process — Columbia is a 3D design. Look at EB’s job postings for designers — CATIA experience is usually a requirement for most of the them.
      Completely agree on the education system in this country failing hard. EB actually started an apprentice program a few years back at local high schools and it is just now paying dividends. The other hard part for EB is holding onto their welders and other skilled tradesmen once they finish the apprenticeship programs and can go anywhere. We really should be forcing high schools to bring back shop/tech classes with some of the funding we are providing from the federal level to schools. Can you imagine the wailing and the gnashing of teeth if we did that though? God forbid little Johnny comes home and after a few hours of playing video games while waiting for his parents to get home from work he tells them he wants to be a welder!

      • Curtis Conway

        Actually, now is a good time. The president is already in the mood and heading in that direction, and Elisabeth Dee DeVos, our US Secretary of Education is thinking in those terms. There are a lot of moms and dads our there with grown children with a degree, sometimes advanced degree (in basket weaving) living in their basement.

        The Abilene Independent School System tried to float a bond issue for a Professional Technical Institute (PROTECH) where the High School Student would enroll in a vocational/technical program to receive a certification or designations (Heating/Air-conditioning, or apprenticeships in Plumbing, Electrician, etc., even Culinary Sciences, and Hospitality, and all the digital certifications for networks via copper/fiber) in some vocational/technical field . . . and the voters shot it down. It was for $3 Million looking for an investor with $3 Million to match, and we would put their name on the school. Now . . . everyone complains about the availability and cost of said services, when they are able to schedule them, and complain because their children living in their basement don’t have any marketable skills. How about that “everybody has to go to college” mantra . . . Huh!?

        • NavySubNuke

          Agreed… except to worry that it may be past time!!

          • Curtis Conway

            It’s never too late, unless we don’t do it at all. We simply must get started. Too many timid souls in the country! Not the America I grew up in. Today’s ‘Citizenry’ are just BARELY so… capable that is.

      • Curtis Conway

        This new Fast Attack would not be used for land attack so some Mk48s is what we are talking about. Small, fast, and quiet. It would have a single mission for the most part. Some of those UUVs go out the Mk48 capable tube too.

        • NavySubNuke

          Land attack takes up about 10 feet of space max… the two VPTs at the front end of the boat are the only land attack portion and even that is debatable since you fire a lot of other things out of them like ASCMs.
          Trust me, I work on COLUMBIA – we did everything we could to shrink that boat since we really do buy submarines by the foot and when you are talking about a ship with a 43 foot beam every foot adds quite a bit in cost. Stealth drives ship size far more than “land attack” which in the grand scheme of things adds next to nothing but does provide amazingly valuable ocean interface volume, especially when you consider the reconfigurable VPT tubes we are using in the bow now vs. the old style VLS.
          There actually is a chart that was built for Columbia that shows why it is a bigger submarine even though it has 8 fewer missile tubes. I’ve searched but can’t actually find it anywhere in the public domain so it is likely FOUO but it shouldn’t be too hard to find if you are connected to ship building or NAVSEA in any fashion.

          • Curtis Conway

            Minimum length for a Fast Attack anti-shipping submarine?

            By the way . . . on the KRUSTY Fuel Cell AIP Fast Attack . . . the Sprint-Drift would still take place with some different dynamics. Progress along the PIM would continue to take place when on KRUSTY power only (your 4-6 knots) slower. If O2 made by KRUSTY was used that equation would look even better.

          • NavySubNuke

            Minimum length depends strongly on beam.
            If you want to stick with a 33 foot beam like Virginia…. the minimum length for stealthy new design SSN with electric drive is probably about 15+ feet longer than Virginia. Especially if it is designed from the start for mix gender crews – which all drives hull length.
            A few compassion:
            Seawolf is the biggest of the bunch and has a 40 foot beam and the “regular” version is 353 feet long.
            Virginia is 33 feet and 377 feet in length.
            Astute is ~37 feet in beam but only about ~318 feet long but her displacement is nearly identical to Virginia thanks to that extra beam.
            I haven’t actually seen the specs but I expect SSN(x) will find a sweet spot between the two that allows EB and NN to still produce them efficiently (i.e. don’t have to do a huge rebuild of the support equipment to handle the modules) but gives us the extra margin for future growth that Virginia lacks. I also expect it will about as long as Seawolf though Virginia (or more) is possible but not likely.
            Astutes ~37 feet is my guess, especially since both EB and NR helped with her design (and by helped I mean rescued).

          • Curtis Conway

            I’m starting to feel better. Note . . . I am not trying to drag Class info out of you, and please don’t do that. Thanks for the info. I hope the infrastructure improvements, new 3D tools, CAD/CAM, and increase in workforce can bridge the gap. Be Safe!

          • NavySubNuke

            Happy to help – no worries on me giving out classified info — I have a wife and kids to feed so I am very careful not to endanger my employment!
            Things really are going well in the submarine force. The only real road block is congressional pork – they chose to add two extra unneeded and unwanted LCS this year instead of adding extra SSNs to help us through the trough. N97 is looking ot address that with targeted life extensions of certain boats that have been ridden a little less hard than others but that isn’t a perfect solution.
            On the positive side – the fact that VPM was approved is a huge step and will go a long way towards sustaining the undersea firepower the Navy has come to rely upon since we converted the oldest 4 SSBNs into SSGNs. Remember that FLORIDA put more TLAMs into Libya than the rest of the Navy combined! The 30 year ship building plan also calls for us to sustain the large diameter submarine construction line after COLUMBIA is finished and start building purpose built SSGNs based on that hull form every few years (I think 3 but I don’t remember for sure). The Navy is hard at work on SSN(X) now but I like what I am hearing so far. Yes it will be expensive, but it will be far cheaper than losing a war because we built a bunch of SSNs that were too small to accomplish the mission.

          • Curtis Conway

            Short Columbia Fast Attack?

          • NavySubNuke

            Nope – Full size COLUMBIA but not for strategic use — SSGN just like the four oldest OHIOs though maybe with a few more mods since they will be new builds not conversions.
            SSN(X) something much smaller…. but still bigger than Virginia.

          • El_Sid

            Astute is beamier than she might have been thanks to using a SSBN reactor – the RN can’t afford the luxury of multiple reactor designs, so that was a major driver of the Astute design.

  • Curtis Conway

    What is the retention rate for submariners ? . . and the women want to get in on this action?

    • NavySubNuke

      Typical retention rate for officers is <20% if I remember correctly – 16% is the number that sticks in my mind but it has been a long time since I saw a community brief. Not sure about enlisted but I don't think it is all that much higher.
      Historically women have retained at about 50% of the rate that men have. This is especially problematic for submarines since you can't really cram in extra JOs just to make up for <10% retention to department head. I am not sure if they are still doing this but originally all of the submarines that received female officers were still fully "manned" and the two females were actually just plus ups above normal manning (except for the chop but you don't really need one of those anyway).
      About 3 years ago when i saw the numbers not a single female officer from the first year group stayed in for a department head tour and then only a single one from the second year group stayed in. Considering there was something in the range of 30-40 line officers between these two year groups that is pretty abysmal. Hopefully things have improved since then!