Navy Attack Subs Lost More Than Two Decades Worth Of Operational Time To Maintenance Delays

The service has already spent hundreds of millions of dollars for boats sitting idle and a top Congressional watchdog warns it could get worse.

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The U.S. Navy’s submarine community has been the focus of great attention recently as the service has offered new details about plans for multiple new classes of submarines and plans for a Topgun-like training program for submariners. Unfortunately, a new report from a top Congressional watchdog highlights the Navy’s continuing struggles to maintain the attack sub fleet it already has, with the service incurring more than $1.5 billion in charges in the past decade to keep boats sitting pier-side for months, and sometimes years, awaiting major maintenance The result? Decades of operational time lost in the process.

On Nov. 19, 2018, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released an unclassified version of its review, which focuses on the maintenance backlog impacting Los Angeles-, Virginia-, and Seawolf-class attack submarines, but does not include data relating to Ohio-class ballistic and cruise missile boats. Just over a year earlier, U.S. Navy Vice Admiral Joseph Tofalo, then-Commander, Submarine Forces, had himself acknowledged the extent of the issue and warned that the service might not be able to meet the demands for a surge in submarine deployments during a major conflict.

“Submarine fleet and squadron officials emphasized the strict safety culture that permeates the submarine community,” GAO’s investigators noted in their new report. “Officials added that the Navy will delay deployment dates if necessary to ensure that these standards are met. As a result, deployed readiness is high and attack submarines are in excellent material condition as compared with the rest of the Navy fleet.”

It’s not a bad attitude to have. Submarines, especially nuclear-powered types, are complex and any major system failure, particularly one that occurs underwater, could be disastrous.

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The Los Angeles-class USS Helena arrives at Norfolk Naval Shipyard for major maintenance in 2015.

The problem is that the Navy has suffered a significant loss of its own shipyard capacity in recent years, something that GAO investigated separately in 2017. At present, the service has four public shipyards capable of heavy maintenance on submarines, which are Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, Norfolk Naval Shipyard, Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility, and Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility. 

With limited available space to conduct heavy maintenance, surface ships and submarines both have to dutifully wait their turn for repairs. These shipyards also serve surface vessels and perform other tasks. So, it’s not surprising that delays have had a cascading impact on the maintenance schedules. This has had a particularly pronounced impact on the extra safety-conscious officials in charge of the submarine fleets.

“The Navy has been unable to begin or complete the vast majority of its attack submarine maintenance periods on time resulting in significant maintenance delays and operating and support cost expenditures,” the GAO review explained. “Our analysis found that the primary driver affecting attack submarines are delays in completing depot maintenance.”

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The Los Angeles-class USS City of Corpus Christi in Dry Dock 1 at the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility.

Between 2008 and 2018, attack submarines undergoing heavy maintenance experienced a combined total of more than 8,470 days of delays – equivalent to more than 23 years of total operational time lost. Boats in the aging Los Angeles-class, the Navy’s primary attack submarine type at present, alone accounted for more than 6,280 of those days.

On top of that, attack submarines spent nearly 1,900 days – more than five years of total time – simply sitting idle in port, waiting to begin maintenance availabilities. Each day a Los Angeles class submarine was either in dry dock or waiting its turn cost the U.S. government almost $136,000 on average. This price point was significantly higher for the three larger Seawolfs, which have unique maintenance demands. Block I Virginias were slightly more expensive to maintain than the older Los Angeles types, but Block II boats were far cheaper.

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A breakdown of the days lost to delays and idle periods, as well as the average costs per day, among the US Navy's attack submarine fleets.

In total, over the past 10 years, the Navy has spent around $1.5 billion paying just for delays and idle periods, in addition to just losing the use of those submarines for extended periods of time. The Los Angeles-class USS Boise has been out of service the longest, awaiting overhaul since June 2016. By the time she starts her maintenance availability in January 2019 she will have been sitting idle for more than two and a half years.

“If you have a submarine that’s tied up in the shipyard, then obviously they’re not operating,” U.S. Navy Vice Admiral Tofalo had said in November 2017. “It’s probably most manifest in our ability to surge in time of crisis. We meet our … demand on a day to day basis, but the impact would be, if there’s a crisis, then your surge tank is low.”

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The USS Boise sitting idle at Norfolk Naval Station.

Since then, this has only become a more worrisome reality amid U.S. military planning for major conflicts with near-peer adversaries, such as Russia and China. Both of those countries have stepped up their submarine activity and the Chinese, in particular, are working to grow and modernize their already large submarine fleets.

GAO did note that the Navy has been hiring more personnel to staff its existing public shipyards, is making new capital investments in those facilities, and has developed a plan to better optimize the space available. The service still expects the delays to continue, though, and GAO believes that the cumulative impact means that they will keep growing in length. This could cost the U.S. government around another $266 million between 2018 and 2023 to pay for delays and to keep submarines in shipyards waiting for maintenance – and that's only if current trends continue as expected. 

So, GAO recommended that the service develop a proper formal business case to examine all of its available options for easing and hopefully eventually eliminating the maintenance backlog. This would include better exploring how it can spread maintenance work between its own shipyards and private firms.

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The Los Angeles-class USS Dallas arrives at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility to begin the inactivation and decommissioning process, another task that facility uses it shipyards to perform, in January 2018.

Over the past five years, the Navy has sent around eight million man-hours of submarine maintenance to private yards, according to GAO. The problem is that this has been on a sporadic, case-by-case basis, which has, in turn, resulted in its own issues and delays. Without standing deals, the service has to go through a contracting process in each individual instance to get a boat into a private yard.

That firm then has to hire or allocate workers who may not be experienced with the boats in question or submarines in general. The complicated demands of the Navy's all-nuclear submarine fleet and the highly classified nature of the boats' reactors, not to mention their missions systems, only exacerbates these issues. “The sporadic shifts in workload have resulted in repair workload gaps that have disrupted private shipyard workforce, performance, and capital investment – creating costs that are ultimately borne in part by the Navy,” GAO explained.

“We would like to give them work on a semi-regular basis to at least create some efficiency for submarine maintenance,” U.S. Navy Vice Admiral Tom Moore, head of Naval Sea Systems Command, had said during a speech to the American Society of Naval Engineers (ASNE) Fleet Maintenance and Modernization Symposium in September 2018. “So that when we have peak years at naval shipyards we can choose to source that work out to the private sector.”

Sending boats back to the manufacturer, where these skill sets may be more established, is another option, but won’t necessarily be one forever. General Dynamics Electric Boat and Huntington Ingalls Industries-Newport News Shipbuilding, which build the Virginias and will also build the future Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines, say they will each have the capacity to host major submarine maintenance for the next five years. 

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The Virginia-class USS Minnesota under construction in 2012.

However, with the Navy’s desire to increase Virginia-class production and begin constructing the Columbias at those same yards in the coming years, that isn’t a long-term solution. The maintenance backlog also raises questions about whether or not the service is ready to accommodate any influx of new submarines, as well as its plans for new types, on top of its existing fleets. Some older submarines will get retired as new ones come online, but there will still be transition periods and the Navy is almost constantly looking to expand the overall size of its submarine force.

“The Department of Defense concurs with this recommendation and has taken the first steps to take a more holistic view of submarine maintenance requirements and impacts across both the public and private shipyards,” the Office of the Secretary of Defense told GAO after reviewing the report. Any direct response from the Navy is not provided in the unclassified version of the report.

The Navy will have to move quickly if it wants to begin implementing any new maintenance processes in the near-term. It can ill afford to make any more of a habit of having submarines sitting idle in port for years on end.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com