Navy: Lack of Submarine Parts Slowing Down Maintenance, New Construction

March 26, 2019 6:31 PM
USS Hawaii (SSN-776) off of Oahu, Hawaii during Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise, July 9, 2018 . US Navy photo.

CAPITOL HILL – A competition for material between submarine construction and submarine maintenance is contributing to slowdowns in both, the Navy’s acquisition chief told USNI News today.

The Navy has more submarine maintenance to conduct than its four public shipyards can accommodate. As a result, the service has been shifting maintenance availabilities of its older Los Angeles-class attack boats to General Dynamics Electric Boat and Huntington Ingalls Industries’ Newport News Shipbuilding.

However, maintenance work at both yards has run long. Three boats in maintenance now are running behind schedule and are creating unbudgeted expenses for the Navy. The unforeseen cost overruns were included in the Navy’s unfunded priorities list released this week to supplement the official Fiscal Year 2020 budget request.

At the same time, new-build Virginia-class submarines are struggling to meet their delivery dates. Modules are being moved between co-builders Newport News Shipbuilding and Electric Boat behind schedule due to a variety of issues. One factor is late delivery of material and parts from the supply base, USNI News understands.

After a House Armed Services seapower and projection forces subcommittee hearing today that covered both delays in submarine maintenance and construction, Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition James Geurts told USNI News that competition for material between construction and repairs is challenging the service.

Asked about the root cause of delays of sub maintenance work at the private yards, Geurts told USNI News, “I think it’s a combination of getting a skilled workforce up and operating, getting the planning available across both private and public yards to the level of detail needed, and then it is contending for material – because as we bring these maintenance availabilities in, you’re contending for material that’s also going to Virginia and now Columbia (ballistic missile submarine program). So we’ve got to look at it as a whole ecosystem, and that’s what we’re doing right now.”

Artist’s rendering of the Columbia-class SSBN submarine. US Navy Image

The Navy had previously framed sub maintenance work at private yards as a risk-reducer ahead of the top-priority Columbia SSBN program: the shipyards needed to build up their workforce ahead of the start of the first SSBN, and the public naval shipyards couldn’t keep up with demand, so moving a couple LA-class subs to Electric Boat and Newport News Shipbuilding would allow them to grow the workforce early and help reduce the maintenance backlog at the same time. Now, as is evident in last week’s long-range ship maintenance plan, the service will struggle to keep up with submarine repair work even while leveraging both public and private yards – making SSN repairs at the two private yards not just a Columbia risk-reducer anymore but a pivotal part of keeping sub maintenance backlogs from getting out of control.

Geurts said during the hearing that sub maintenance is “something we’re really working on hard.”

“We’ve seen improvement on the public yard in terms of reducing idle time and buying back maintenance days. Right now we have three subs that are in idle time waiting to get in, Boise (SSN-764) is one of them. The challenge with Boise has been delays – we’ve had other submarines in private yard maintenance (that saw delays), and quite frankly we just can’t get Boise in until we get the current submarines in the docks at Newport News out. That slipped Boise into 20 – we planned to do it this year, that slipped it into 20 – that occurred after the 20 budget was put together, that’s why it showed up on the unfunded list.”

USNI News previously reported Boise was set to enter maintenance at Newport News Shipbuilding as early as January 2019, but the sub is still unable to move from Naval Station Norfolk to nearby Newport News. Geurts said the Navy is focused on this “idle time,” where ships are no longer certified to operate but cannot get started on their maintenance, and said his goal is to eliminate idle time by 2023.

“We’re better than we were, but we’re not where we need to be yet in terms of having ships with idle time, not certified, waiting to get into maintenance,” he said during the hearing.

“At macro, we’re not where we need to be; the number of ships that are in idle time has been going down, so we’ve got a plan to continue to drive that down,” he told USNI News after the hearing.
“My goal is that we have no backlog whatsoever for Los Angeles-class submarines by 23: that will be a combination of continuing to get improved performance in the public yard and working with the private yards – it’s taken them a little while to restart, get the workforce trained, and continue to work with them to improve their effectiveness.”

USS Boise (SSN-764) returns to its homeport of Norfolk in 2010. US Navy Photo

On the submarine-building side, Geurts said during the hearing that “Virginia continues to be our most successful acquisition program” in the Navy, but he added that, after reducing the build time from 84 months to 66 months already, the service is struggling to further reduce that time as planned.

“Our goal is still to continue to shrink that span time, we’ve been a little bit challenged getting below that 66-month span time,” he said.

Despite ongoing challenges to conducting submarine construction and maintenance on time, the Navy added a third submarine into its request for FY 2020 – something industry had previously asked for, before production schedules started to slip and supplier challenges became more widely talked about.

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson previously told USNI News that the Navy had the biggest requirement gap in attack submarines – it has just 51 today compared to a requirement for 66 – and that that gap was the driver to add a third sub in 2020.

Geurts said at the hearing that the Navy determined that gap was worth adding in another submarine, but the third sub in 2020 would be handled a little differently than the others, if Congress chooses to fund it. The Navy already awarded a contract to Electric Boat and Newport News that covered 10 subs over five years, with options for additional subs if Congress funds them – but Geurts said the Navy already awarded an economic order quantity contract for advance procurement of materials for just 10 subs. The third 2020 boat would cost a little more, since the parts wouldn’t be subject to the lower rate for buying in volume, and the Navy would pay for the sub entirely in FY 2020 instead of spreading out some advance procurement costs in the preceding year.

USS Washington (SSN-787). HII Photo

“The challenge for us is finding the right spot in the production cycle, and our sense right now, it will look about as a 2023 ship,” Geurts said, noting another difference with this ship – that there would be a lag between the time the Navy buys it and the time the shipyards start working on it in earnest.
“The other thing that’s important … is keeping in mind Columbia coming along and making sure, as we look at it, by loading it now it gives us the most time to figure out how to use that efficiently as a risk-reduction element for Columbia, i.e. we can get some of the additional workforce trained up, get some more of the supplier base and get some of those supplier bills out of the way before Columbia gets here. So we’re working to put all of those together. Our analysis last year wasn’t mature enough to commit to [buying a third SSN]; this year we felt more comfortable, recognizing both the state of the program and the urgency of the requirement.”

Megan Eckstein

Megan Eckstein

Megan Eckstein is the former deputy editor for USNI News.

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