Navy Confident It Could Build 3 Virginia SSNs a Year, Though More Study Needed On Shipyard Capacity

November 18, 2020 6:19 PM
Attack boat Vermont (SSN-792) float-off on March 29, 2019. General Dynamics Electric Boats Photo

The Navy has “full confidence we can ramp up” to building three attack submarines per year if the Navy buildup proposed by former Defense Secretary Mark Esper were to be enacted, despite ongoing delays in Block IV Virginia-class construction, the program executive officer for submarines said today.

Esper’s Battle Force 2045 called for the Navy to reach 70 to 80 attack submarines, and he specifically called on Congress to allow the Navy to start building three Virginia-class subs a year as an immediate way to begin implementing this vision – this despite the Navy being on a path to build two a year for the foreseeable future but Esper’s Pentagon cutting the budget to just one in this current Fiscal Year 2021.

The Navy has just 50 SSNs today, is on track to dip to 42 later this decade, and wouldn’t reach the 60s until 2042, according to current plans. Shipbuilding would have to ramp up to at least three SSNs a year, if not more, to reach Esper’s goal of as many as 80 by 2045.

“We are in the initial studies of doing that analysis of how you go ramp up for three a year,” Rear Adm. David Goggins said in response to a question from USNI News today at the Naval Submarine League’s annual symposium.

“But first of all, the priority is Columbia, so we’ve got to make sure as we ramp up to three per year that that program delivers on time,” he made clear.
“So how are we doing this? The good news is, the work we’ve done with our government-industry team on the vendor base, we have a very good understanding of our vendor base today at the two Virginias per year – we know where the constraints are, we know where we need more machines, more buildings – so we have a good understanding of what it will take to ramp up our vendor base for going from two to three Virginias per year. Where we need to do work is at [General Dynamics Electric Boat] and Newport News, ramping them up for three per year: what facilities they need, what machines they need and the manning ramp-up they have to go do for three per year,” he continued, referring to the two shipbuilding yards that co-produce the Virginia and Columbia submarines.

“We are looking at expansion options: it will require investment at EB and Newport News, our vendor base. We’re not going to do that at the expense of the Columbia program – the Columbia is the priority. The second priority is to execute the schedule for Block IV and Block V (Virginia-class subs), and we have full confidence we can ramp up to three per year if the Navy is called to go do that.”

The presidents of both shipyards recently said they believed they could handle three SSNs a year but that they and their suppliers would only invest in the additional infrastructure, machinery and people if the Navy sent a clear demand signal and committed to higher shipbuilding rates for a long duration.

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

Ron O’Rourke, a naval analyst at the Congressional Research Service, said in a different Sub League presentation that moving to three Virginia boats a year could also provide the Navy an opportunity to re-think how it builds the ships altogether. He said the current plan was largely developed in 1997 when the Navy was building just one a year, spread across two yards so that neither would go out of business. The approach was modified slightly when the Columbia program was added to the workload. If the Navy is looking at a more demanding SSN construction schedule, “the Navy might want to again examine the existing build strategy for the Virginia class and look at the issue of whether it should be maintained or perhaps further modified again.”

After a gap in submarine construction, the Navy commissioned no new submarines from 1998 to 2004. When the Virginia program was started, the Navy and its industry partners built just one a year. They switched to building two a year in the middle of Block III, and Block IV is the first contract with pricing and schedules based on building two a year and the efficiencies that were supposed to come with that rate.

However, according to a slide Goggins included in his presentation, while industry delivered the Block II submarines well ahead of schedule, the two yards started overrunning their contractual construction durations when they switched to two a year. The first Block IV boat, USS Vermont (SSN-792), was commissioned earlier this year and took 71.5 months to construct, compared to the 62-month schedule laid out in the contract.

The entire rest of Block IV is currently projected to take between 67 and 77 months to complete, despite contractual obligations to come in after 62 months and eventually dropping down to 60 months.

“We have had challenges in this program … The Navy recognizes and they’re monitoring these delays on Block IV, but the key thing is really staying on cadence, executing the recovery plan, and ensuring we’re on schedule by Block V,” Goggins said in his opening remarks, adding that the program had developed a recovery plan last year with industry to get back on track by the end of Block IV.

He added that the first three Block V submarines were in early stages of construction now, and “all three of those Block V submarines are on schedule. And that’s really key for the success for the Columbia program.”

“We’ve been very aggressive reducing our contractual build plans from the early days of the program to Block IV. Block I: actual spans for the lead ships, the first four ships, were 80 to 93 months, and that was at that one per year cadence. Block II and III continued to drive down that construction span to the low 60s, but the challenge here is at that two-per-year build rate at both the vendor base and the companies, EB and Newport News, and parallel with that transition to a young and expanding workforce as we’re hiring more people,” he told USNI News.
“The program has now delivered submarines in the 70-month span as you can see on that chart. And our last delivery, the USS Vermont, delivered in April at roughly 71 months. The key thing for all of this is, our focus now is to keep Block IV to the schedules that are on that slide, to establish that cadence, and the key thing is to really ensure that Block V executes the schedule you see there on those three submarines. So it’s getting that cadence established and maintained in Block IV, really ensuring that Block V executes the schedule there, and by doing that, we will ensure the success of the Columbia program.”

He said that, despite the delays with Block IV, overall the program had taken more than three and a half years out of the time it takes to actually get the submarine to the fleet, include post-delivery tests and trials. Some of this was accomplished by reducing the construction timeline, especially during Block II, and part of it was accomplished by delivering high-quality subs that scored well during trials and took little work after trials before they could be sent to the fleet to start training for deployment.

Goggins added later in the question-and-answer session that part of the analysis for moving to three Virginias a year would look at the maintenance capacity at the Navy’s public shipyards and at Electric Boat and Newport News Shipbuilding. He said the Navy would not build the ships if they couldn’t properly maintain them, so the program will be projecting out what the larger fleet’s maintenance needs would be each year and seeing what the capacity might be for that amount of work.

Megan Eckstein

Megan Eckstein

Megan Eckstein is the former deputy editor for USNI News.

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