Whether it’s 355 ships or 342, the Navy is getting bigger. And as it looks to expand its fleet, the service is looking to its Virginia-class program as a model for success.

The program has driven down costs and construction times for years while expanding its production, but now it faces a mountain of challenges as the Navy gets ready to build the follow-on ballistic missile submarine force, the Columbia-class.

The program has seen some recent set-backs as it forges ahead, with supplier issues causing delays in production. Now, as the Navy debates what the future of its submarine force will be in a larger Navy, the program is eyeing the possibility of expanding again to three Virginia-class submarines per year on years that Navy doesn’t buy Columbia-class subs.

Defense News got a chance to sit down with the man at the head of all those efforts, Rear Adm. Michael Jabaley, program executive officer for submarines, to talk successes, challenges and what’s ahead.

Thanks for sitting down with us for an update on the Virginia class. First off, tell us a bit about your program and how it’s performing?

First of all, the most important thing is that we have 15 Virginia-class submarines commissioned in the fleet and they’re out there performing exceptionally well. We get continuous feedback from both the type commanders, Commander Submarine Force Atlantic and Commander Submarine Force Pacific, who are responsible for training and providing ready forces to the combatant commanders for deployment. So, they’re the ones that work most closely with the boats during the non-deployment time and the workup time and then they go off and deploy and work for European Command or Pacific Command. Adm. Harry Harris in PACOM says he needs more submarines. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti in EUCOM saying he needs more submarines. I on occasion am lucky enough to see some of the mission debriefs from the boats coming back from deployment and the things they’re doing her eye-watering.

So, we need these submarines. It’s our job to make sure that we are delivering quality submarines to the fleet in as efficient and timely a manner as we can.

The Navy holds this up as its example program of things that are going well. There have been some hiccups lately. Overall, how are you doing getting boats out on time?

We, the program office, own the ship and its schedule because there is testing postdelivery that has to be done before the ship can be certified as a war fighting element. That’s things like acoustic trials, weapon systems, accuracy tests. Things that are Navy testing and not shipbuilder testing. So that all happens and then the ship goes back into the post-shakedown availability. So the testing is the shakedown part and then you go into the post-shakedown availability. Then at the end of PSA, it gets turned over to the type commander and they workup the crew and certify it for deployment.

So, one of our goals has been to shorten not only the delivery portion — the five to six years where we are now — but also the shakedown portion and the PSA. We’ve been very successful in both of those.

We have a chart that shows from USS Virginia 774 all the way to USS Colorado 788 what that trend has been, and we’ve achieved significant reductions in all three of those areas. The construction, the shakedown and the PSA and some of the details.

What we have done is the initial contract span for the first ships was 84 months and we have successively reduced that in a significant amount down ... the block three submarines are all 66 months. Then when you add on the other parts, the shakedown and the PSA, there’s been additional reduction. Not only are we going from 84 [months] down to 66 in contracted spans, but at the same time, we had about 20 to 25 percent design change in the platform and we went from one submarine a year to two submarines per year.

A design change, a doubling of the production rate and reduction of almost a year in the amount of time you give yourself to build a ship. I will tell you that the entire team has done a phenomenal job in pulling this off.

A few of the boats have run behind at least your intended schedule, including the most recent one, Colorado. What has been driving that?

We are delivering block three submarines plus-or-minus five percent of the contracted span. Five percent to 66 months is a little bit over three months.

Each of the block three submarines to date has been within that band. SSN 784 (North Dakota) was just weeks early. SSN 785 (John Warner) was almost 3 months early. That was a ship where everything went very well. SSN 786 (Illinois) was just a little bit early. SSN 787 (Washington) was the first one where we missed the delivery date and we missed that by about three months, about 5 percent.

Got close to back on track with Colorado. That was three weeks late, which is … well, three weeks is three weeks. Then SSN 789 (Indiana) is our current boat right now, and she’s going to deliver about three months late.

Would we want all of our boats to deliver within the contracted delivery span? Of course we would. But you have to realize that as you take more and more time out of the time allotted to build the subs, you have less time to recover from the inevitable things that don’t work right the first time. Our job is to continue working with the shipbuilders to understand why things don’t work right the first time and drive that out of the process. But the reality is, with the millions and millions of parts that go into the ship and the millions and millions of actions required to fabricate, assemble and test all those parts, there are going to be things that don’t work right the first time.

We’ve been very successful at continuing to drive down the impact of that and as we now are in a 66-month span. I term it a success.

Will you be back on track after Indiana?

[For] SSN 790 (South Dakota), we’re working very hard to make sure that she delivers on time. Right now, she is scheduled to deliver a little bit early to contract delivery date, which will be in August of this year. Then 791 is the last boat of Block III. She’s scheduled to deliver next February and we’re working very closely with the shipbuilders to ensure that we get her out on time as well.

As I said…we have a fairly good track record of these boats plus-or-minus five percent. Some have been early.

What’s the big push for Block IV?

Taking another four months off the schedule for the first three boats and then the remaining seven are at 60 months. So, you’re taking almost 10 percent out of the delivery span from 66 down to 60 months. That’s a challenge.

The task to the shipbuilders is to find structural things to change to allow a more efficient assembly and completion of the ship. You can’t just work harder. You can’t just throw more people at the problem. You have to make either design changes or process and installation changes with the shipbuilders to allow that kind of improvement.

One of the examples that Newport News has really been championing is the integrated digital shipbuilding. That is a significant effort to again, move away from the paper drawings that you used to see the machinists carrying down to the jobsite, whether it’s in the shop or in the assembly hall or the boat floating pier-side, and moving from that to a Toughbook or a notepad where it’s all contained there. You don’t have to flip through reams of pages. You don’t have to read the revisions and make sure they’re properly applied, because it’s all there in the product model itself.

Is there a concern for cyber security?

Absolutely. That’s a big part of the system. What is the connectivity? How does it get loaded onto the laptop? What’s the condition while you’re walking around in the yard? That is absolutely a part of it. But the benefits that this promises are significant and you can do things like augmented reality.

They’re already doing this, so as opposed to reading dimensions off of a drawing and then measuring them out and saying, “Okay, this hanger attachment point has to go right here,” you can take that notepad or Toughbook and hold it up and it’s got target points that align what the camera is seeing to the installation site and it’ll show you exactly where that hangar is supposed to go.

So that’s kind of an example of a structural change that allows you to take man-hours out of the design, planning and execution process.

One of the questions, one of the anxieties, I hear from the shipyard guys is worker churn. The idea is that perhaps Millenials aren’t staying as long at one job anymore and they are losing a big investment in training. How are you working through that?

I try not to use stereotypes as much as I can. In my experience, I think that a company that respects its employers and provides them the training necessary to do their job and provides a good workforce will retain enough of their employees to be successful.

I don’t think we’re looking at a sea change in workforce habits in terms of hopping job to job. There’s certainly some of that without a doubt. But we’re looking at a huge ramp-up in employment at our principal shipbuilders, Electric Boat and Newport News. Because now we’re at continuous two per year Virginia construction and we’re adding the Columbia ballistic missile submarine, which each submarine is about two and a half times the effort required for building of Virginia.

There are ongoing discussions about adding a third Virginia in the years where we’re not building a Columbia. So, we we’ve gone from nothing basically in the late 1990s to one per year Virginia in the early 2000s, to two per year in 2011. Now you’re either going to go to three or four and a half per year.

So we’re talking thousands and thousands of additional workers. Electric Boat has been very proactive in working with the states of Connecticut and Rhode Island and using several community colleges as training starting points. They’ve set up a training program such that the students coming out community college are eligible for hiring at Electric Boat. Day one on the job, they are significantly more ready and productive than a standard guy walking in off the street and applying. That’s been hugely successful. So, am I concerned that everyone they’re hiring will get bored in three or four years and go do something else? No.

Some of them you will, but I think the numbers will be small enough within the normal attrition patterns. Because these are good jobs. They’re good-paying jobs and you only have to look at the Navy’s 30-year shipbuilding plan and the statements by all of leadership to understand that these jobs are not going away anytime soon. So the future I think is good for the person who’s interested in starting a career at one of our shipbuilders.

Can I get a quick status update on where you are with the Virginia Payload Module for Block V?

Virginia payload module is going well. The design progress is on track to have a high level of completion at construction start. We’ve defined for Columbia ... 83 percent at contraction start is what we want.

Virginia originally was 42 percent when we started construction. So we’re well beyond anything that we’ve ever accomplished before in terms of design completed construction start.

For the Virginia payload module, we’re tracking to about 75 to 80 percent completed construction start, which is good. The prototyping of the first four payload tubes is in progress. So, as you know, the Virginia payload module is an insert which will go in at construction that adds four 87-inch tubes to allow additional strike capacity from the Virginia. It takes Virginia from 12 Tomahawks to 40 Tomahawks by those additional four tubes. So those four tubes are already under construction at the vendors and will be ready for assembly into the first Virginia payload module ship. So, we’re on track.

Thank you for taking the time out, Admiral.