ABOARD BALLISTIC MISSILE SUBMARINE USS ALASKA, AT NAVAL SUBMARINE BASE KINGS BAY, Ga. – The East Coast’s ballistic missile submarine hub is busy keeping up the readiness of its legacy Ohio-class boomers while also laying the groundwork to welcome the new Columbia class later in the decade.
The base’s challenge with the Ohio-class ballistic missile (SSBN) and guided-missile (SSGN) variants located here is twofold: most immediately, the base is located near the Florida-Georgia line, with both states being hotspots for the COVID-19 virus. More broadly, the base is supporting submarines that have started surpassing their original expected service lives, with the Ohio class originally being planned for 30 years of operations but some boats now well on their way to the revised 42-year life expectancy.
USNI News was invited to the base when Defense Secretary Mark Esper visited on July 30 to check on how the workforce was performing during the pandemic.
The base is home to six SSBNs and two SSGNs, as well as the Trident Refit Facility that performs repairs, modernization and overhauls on these boats; the Trident Training Facility; and the Strategic Weapons Facility, Atlantic that supports the submarine-launched nuclear weapons the submarines deploy with. Kings Bay was designed in the 1970s to be completely focused on supporting the Ohio-class boats and the nuclear weapons they carry on their stealthy patrols.
And yet, in just eight years, the base will have to take on a second class of submarine that is larger, has fly-by-wire control systems and will have different maintenance and modernization needs.
As a result, the base is busy keeping up maintenance work, crew training and deployment activities for the Ohio boats even as construction activities begin to make way for USS Columbia’s (SSBN-826) delivery to the fleet at Kings Bay in 2028.
“America’s ballistic missile submarines remain the most survivable and powerful deterrents on earth. Nuclear modernization is a top priority, especially in our efforts to implement the National Defense Strategy,” Esper told USNI News.
“We have made great strides in recapitalizing the strategic nuclear triad, as well as maintaining the strength and reliability of our nation’s nuclear deterrent.”
Readiness of Aging Subs
USS Alaska (SSBN-732) is pier-side at the submarine base, undergoing a major renovation that its designers never planned for. The Ohio class of submarines was built to last for 30 years, but during the 1990s the Navy asked builder General Dynamics Electric Boat to look into what it would take to extend the service life out to 42 years. The calculations that were made 25 years ago are now proving themselves in real life, as the fleet continues to deploy boats that are well into their 30s now and have surpassed the longest service life of a previous U.S. submarine: USS Kamehameha (SSBN-642), which lasted 36 and a half years.
Cmdr. Adam Thomas, the commanding officer of the Alaska gold crew, told USNI News that his submarine is in a year-long maintenance and modernization period in which tanks are being blasted, inspected and re-coated; the sonar and fire control systems are being torn out and replaced with new systems; and the nuclear propulsion system is being maintained to ensure it can operate for the remaining eight years of its life.
This kind of year-long overhaul happens every 10 years or so, meaning this third such overhaul was never originally planned for the sub.
“What we’re seeing age-wise is what you’d expect from a 34-year-old boat,” Thomas said during a tour of the submarine, noting that nothing specifically was wrong with the sub but that there was a lot of routine maintenance work that needed to be done.
He added that there was additional pressure during maintenance periods like this one to get everything right: with the subs being so old and many parts manufacturers no longer in business, there’s no room for error.
“This is all we have,” he said of the parts supply, adding that they can’t raid other submarines for parts either because the operational tempo of the fleet is so high.
Each of the Ohio-class SSBNs and SSGNs had to undergo a refueling at the 30-year mark, since the subs’ nuclear reactors were built for exactly 30 years of service. The refuelings took place at Norfolk Naval Shipyard on the East Coast and at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility on the West Coast.
USNI News previously reported that each of the two public shipyards was working on its final SSBN refueling now. USS Wyoming (SSBN-742) will wrap up at Norfolk by the end of this summer, and then Puget will finish the very last refueling with USS Louisiana (SSBN-743).
The rest of the maintenance work for the East Coast Ohio subs falls to the workforce at Kings Bay’s Trident Refit Facility, which has a dry dock for out-of-water work and helps ship crews conduct pier-side work as well.
The boomers that deploy from Kings Bay have a blue/gold crew manning construct, and the crews swap out every three months or so to keep the submarine on station for long stretches of time while allowing the crew time at home with family and time for training and re-certifying for critical skills.
However, with COVID-19 posing a threat to personnel everywhere, and especially in hotspots with high positivity rates like Georgia, the Navy has to be particularly careful with personnel at this submarine base.
Thomas told USNI News that the deploying crews have a carefully scripted plan that involves going into an individual restriction of movement (ROM) period, quarantining together as a crew, and then finally deploying under the water – with several mandatory COVID tests along the way.
Masks are mandatory on the base, and for subs like Alaska that are undergoing maintenance work, temperature checks and health screenings are done for all personnel – sailors, contractors, visitors – that come aboard the sub pier-side.
Thomas said only about a quarter of the submarine’s crew is actually living aboard the sub right now during its year-long maintenance period, and so the dozen nine-person berthing rooms on the boat have been limited to three sailors apiece to allow for social distancing.
“Max occupancy: 3. Limited Occupancy in this space as a COVID-19 mitigation,” reads a sign displayed in one of the bunk rooms.
Thomas said his sub at the beginning of the pandemic moved to a duty section rotation that further allows for physical distancing, and the lunch hour was expanded to a two-hour period to avoid gathering too many people at once.
“As a commanding officer, I feel that the Navy has given me the tools that I need” to keep the crew safe and virus-free, he said. “We’ve learned a lot [since the pandemic first started] and we’ve been very effective at managing it.”
Looking Forward to Columbia
Work has already started on the base to prepare for the first-in-class Columbia, which is on a tight construction schedule with General Dynamics Electric Boat and Newport News Shipbuilding to deliver to the Navy by 2027 and head to Kings Bay in 2028 for post-delivery testing and trials – all in preparation for the all-important deadline of an October 2030 maiden deployment.
Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay spokesman Scott Bassett told USNI News during the visit that work to recapitalize the dry dock had already begun, which was needed in part because the Columbia-class boats will be larger than their Ohio-class counterparts in terms of diameter and displacement.
The dry dock modernization, which could cost as much as $592 million, will “provide extensive repairs to and modernize the dock for use by Trident Refit Facility,” he said.
A contract for the project was awarded on March 20 to Alberici-Mortenson JV, based out of St. Louis, Mo.
Phase A includes construction of temporary facilities for operations that will be displaced during the overhaul of the dock; overhaul and repair of the steel caisson; and procurement of long-lead materials for the recapitalization, Bassett said. Phase A is expected to be complete in July 2021.
Phase B provides for concrete repairs in various locations throughout the dry dock; overhauls the bridge cranes; upgrades power distribution, chilled water and the fire detection and alarm system; replaces sluice gates and actuators; replaces all piping; and will upgrade control systems, electronic components and the auxiliary seawater system, he said. This phase will also repair corroded steel members of the dry dock superstructure and re-coat the entire superstructure and replace roof and wall panels. Phase B is planned for completion in October of 2022.
Phase C, the final phase of the project, will repair the utility tunnel and replace utility service building equipment and the command, control, communications, computers and intelligence (C4I) infrastructure, Bassett said. Phase C is planned to complete in April 2023.
In order to meet the tight deadlines of this project, Naval Facilities Engineering Command (NAVFAC) Southeast established a Construction Management Office on site at NSB Kings Bay with dedicated resources capable of supporting 24 hours a day activities.
In addition to the dry dock overhaul, the Trident Training Facility will also be expanded to accommodate classrooms for two separate classes of submarine – something the base has not had to handle before. From the time Columbia delivers until the final Ohio-class SSBN decommissions around 2040, Kings Bay will have to support two classes of submarines simultaneously.
In Fiscal Year 2023, NAVFAC Southeast will build the Columbia Trainer Expansion onto the training facility, along with conducting mechanical and electrical systems repairs to the current training facility. The Columbia trainer and the mechanical repairs are expected to cost more than $10 million each, with the electrical repairs expected to cost between $5 million and $10 million.