WASHINGTON — Connecticut Democrat Rep. Joe Courtney was surprised when he saw the Los Angeles-class attack submarine Boise’s long-delayed overhaul on the Navy’s 2020 “unfunded priorities” list.

The hapless Boise returned from a patrol in 2015, and it hasn’t gone back on patrol since. The inactivity has caused Boise to lose its dive certification, one of three attack subs in the fleet currently unable to submerge. It’s been four years and counting, and now it wasn’t even funded in the Navy’s fiscal 2020 budget request.

The Boise’s availability, unfunded to the tune of $290 million, “sort of jumped off the page,” Courtney told two senior Navy officials in a March hearing on Capitol Hill. The $306 million availability for the attack sub Hartford was also listed as unfunded.

“There’s been a lot of talk about them being kind of in the queue for an awful long time,” said Courtney, whose district includes the General Dynamics Electric Boat shipyard that constructs the Virginia-class attack submarines and will, along with Huntington Ingalls Industries’ Newport News shipyard, construct the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines.

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The answer from the Navy’s top acquisition official was complicated. Nuclear maintenance is conducted in public shipyards in Norfolk, Virginia; Portsmouth, New Hampshire; and Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. But delays and schedule backlogs for other ships — aircraft carriers and ballistic missile submarines — have also driven delays into the attack sub maintenance schedule.

Seeking to ease the burden on public shipyards, the Navy turned to HII’s Newport News yard for the maintenance, but those jobs also fell behind. Overhauls for the Los Angeles-class attack submarines Helena and Columbus are behind by 12-18 months, as Newport News balances work on the Virginia class with preparations for the Columbia class and a new maintenance requirement.

“The challenge with Boise has been delays we’ve seen with the other submarines in the private yard maintenance,” said James Geurts, the Navy’s head of research, development and acquisition. “And quite frankly, we just can’t get Boise in until we get the current submarines in the — in the docks at Newport News out. That slipped Boise in [FY]20.

“We had 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.”

The story here is years old.

Last year, the Government Accountability Office found that in total, between 2008 and 2018, attack boats waiting to go into maintenance had sat idle for 10,363 days. That’s years of lost time and a large chunk of which would certainly have been operational availability.

In 2014, the then-head of Naval Sea Systems Command, Vice Adm. William Hilarides, told an audience at the annual Submarine League symposium that he was in a “tail chase” with sub maintenance.

Part of the problem was increased demands from overused aircraft carriers, and another part of the problem was a continuing effort to refuel all the Ohio-class ballistic missile subs. And still another problem stemmed from budget cuts and a federal hiring freeze that left 2,000 jobs unfilled at the public yards. And attack boats were set to suffer the most pain, as aircraft carriers and ballistic missile subs would take priority.

“They are significantly behind, and we will not catch back up," Hilarides told the audience.

Digging out

There may be light at the end of the tunnel for the Navy’s attack submarine woes.

Some of the Navy’s problems will resolve themselves after ballistic missile subs are refueled, said Bryan Clark, a retired submarine officer and analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

“The big factor here is that attack submarines are last in line when it comes to maintenance,” Clark explained. “And that maintenance is done in the public yards, both the refueling and non-refueling overhauls. So that’s why you see submarines like Boise who have been waiting a long time to get in, because carriers had a lot of maintenance backlog.

“And working through that backlog pushed SSBN refuelings back, and that in turn pushed attack subs to the end of the line. Now that they are working through the carrier backlog and the SSBN refueling is now largely completed, that’s going to mean the attack submarines can be brought back into the public shipyards. So that’s a structural issue that’s going to work itself out.”

But other aspects of the Navy’s quest to dig out of the submarine backlog are thornier and will require the service to make long-term commitments to private shipyards, Clark said. One of the main issues with assigning attack subs to private shipyards is that they are not necessarily set up as maintenance shops: They’re more so built and organized as new construction yards.

Naval Sea Systems Command acknowledged as much in a recent statement to the Virginian Pilot as part of a story on the delays of Columbus and Helena, which the command attributed to “the workforce’s inexperience in conducting submarine maintenance, which differs greatly from new construction.”

Working through those issues will take time, Clark said.

“It’s a totally different job from ship construction,” he added. “So that will take some time to build up a workforce and capacity that’s dedicated to ship maintenance, instead of taking folks who were working new construction and simply repurposing them for overhauls. There are some growing pains associated with adjusting to doing that kind of work.”

Demand signal

The other step to solving the attack boat woes involves sending a consistent demand signal to private shipyards, Clark continued.

“If there is a demand signal from the Navy, if the Navy says this is something we are going to continue to do ... then you’ll see Electric Boat and Huntington Ingalls make the investments in the workforce and the planning capacity to support that,” Clark said.

“But until they see a projected demand signal that goes out several years, they are probably not going to make significant investments in that. And that means these jobs will continue to be ad hoc and drawn from their existing capacity, which means that they are bringing in folks who are used to doing ship construction and having them do maintenance, and it’s going to take longer,” he added.

Providing a demand signal was one of the main intentions behind the 30-year ship maintenance plan rolled out earlier this year by Geurts, the acquisition official. But if the companies are going to invest significant dollars in building out a maintenance operation and workforce, the Navy is going to have to put up a little more than just a plan.

“The 30-year ship maintenance plan is an interesting document from their perspective when it comes to thinking about strategy," Geurts said. "But when it comes to spending money on hiring extra people, establishing an organization that does planning for maintenance availabilities and overhauls, then you are talking about spending real money. You only want to do that if you have a sense of how much work will be there for you to do.”

One way to do that would involve a review of the Navy’s maintenance contracts. In the surface-ship maintenance world, the Navy has flipped between awarding ship maintenance to yards in blocks of two or more ship availabilities, and individually awarding each availability.

Both routes create unique problems.

“For submarine maintenance availabilities, they’ve traditionally been contracted individually,” Clark said. “Which from the industry side is not a predictable demand signal around which you can hire a workforce or invest in a planning and organization capacity. So the Navy may need to look at some sort of longer-term contracting mechanism to give the shipyards a more predictable demand signal.”

Working with Congress to extend the time the Navy has to obligate operations and maintenance dollars might help the service provide more long-term maintenance contracts, Clark said, adding that bundling submarine maintenance availabilities would also provide predictability for private yards.

David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.

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