WASHINGTON – The U.S. Navy will ask the submarine industrial base to do a delicate dance in the coming decade: continue building two Virginia-class attack subs a year, ramp up the pace of building the much-larger Columbia-class ballistic missile sub, and begin designing and building the SSN(X) next-generation attack sub, all while restarting a submarine repair capability.
An industry leader says the timing should work out nicely to move skilled design and production employees heel-to-toe from one project to the next, as long as the Navy keeps a consistent flow of money to avoid peaks and troughs in workload, and as long as the Navy refines its requirements for SSN(X) sooner rather than later. If that doesn’t happen and employees have to be laid off in between projects, the quality, cost and schedule of future submarine work could be put in jeopardy.
The submarine industrial base is fragile today, after a 1970s and 1980s construction boom was followed by minimal construction in the 1990s and early 2000s, leading to challenges as the Navy tries to ramp up attack sub construction while also recapitalizing the ballistic missile submarine fleet – but General Dynamics Electric Boat President Kevin Graney said he’s confident industry is growing stronger and can meet these increasing requirements from the Navy, if only the Navy and Congress are consistent in their funding over the next decade or two.
“We’re at a point right now, we’re ready, willing and able to support the growth in the fleet. I think what’s key to that, though, is consistency. We’ve got to make sure that if two Virginia submarines and a Columbia are the way of the future that we maintain that drumbeat. And the reason for that is because our industrial base depends on it. We are a little fragile as we’ve grown to be where we are today. And I think if we can continue consistency, we will grow over time to be much less fragile than I think we have [been],” Graney, whose company is the prime contractor on the Columbia program and one of two lead builders on the Virginia-class SSNs, said during a July 21 panel at the Navy League’s annual Sea Air Space conference virtual prequel event.
In addition to building more submarines than in recent history, Electric Boat and fellow sub-builder Newport News Shipbuilding are being asked to take on more sub repair work, to supplement what the Navy’s four public shipyards can handle.
“From a maintenance or modernization perspective, I think stability there is also the watchword. From our perspective, that’s a key muscle that we want to continue to keep exercised and supple,” Graney said.
He added that Los Angeles-class attack sub Hartford is at his Connecticut yard now for an engineering overhaul, which was preceded by about a year of planning. This is one area where consistency is pivotal, he said, in no small part to preserve a “workforce that’s capable of doing some rather detailed planning.”
“As we start to execute Hartford, we need to be planning for the next one and the next one after that. It’s going to do a couple of things for us: it’s going to enable us to keep those muscles supple, particularly with radiological controls, which is not something that a new construction shipyard handles as much of as a maintenance and modernization yard. It also is going to enable us to ramp up our staffing to be able to go support Columbia in the long term, particularly here in Groton, where we’ll do final assembly and tests. … Consistency and that demand signal is going to help us be able to deliver new construction submarines to the Navy as quickly as we can, and also maintain the existing fleet submarines. I think the good news here is there’s plenty of work to go around for the private yards as well as the public yards as we go forward,” he continued.
Stability came up in a third context during the panel discussion, when Director of Undersea Warfare (OPNAV N97) Rear Adm. William Houston talked about stability in moving directly from designing the Columbia SSBN into designing the next-generation SSN(X).
“Where SSN(X) is timed is right where we’re coming off that Columbia design team, that very robust design team; we’re going to capitalize on that design team, give that stability. And we’re going to time it such that when Columbia is ramping down in production, we’ll be ramping up in SSN(X) because we’ll have the design and the [research, development, test and evaluation] done,” Houston said, saying the timing was important so that talented design and construction teams can stay in tact as they move from Columbia into SSN(X), rather than industry having to lay off workers and then try to rehire them back later.
Houston described SSN(X) as melding traits from several current and former submarine programs, making the continuity and shared lessons learned all the more important for the success of SSN(X).
“We are looking at the ultimate apex predator for the maritime domain. It is going to be faster, carry a significant punch, bigger payload, larger salvo rate; it’s going to have acoustic superiority. And simultaneous, we’re going to work on operational availability with respect to maintenance. ... What are we doing, we’re taking what we already know how to do and combining it together.”
He said the Seawolf-class attack submarine was built during the Cold War to have the speed and firepower to go into enemy territory and hunt submarines. The Virginia class was built post-Cold War and meant to have the stealth and sensors to go into shallow waters near shorelines and conduct land-attack strikes or clandestine missions. And the Columbia SSBN is being built to reduce lifecycle maintenance time and cost, with a nuclear reactor that will last the life of the boat instead of requiring a lengthy refueling mid-life.
“We are going to go ahead and put that all together. And that is going to be what I’m going to call SSN(X), the apex predator, because it really needs to be ready for that major combat operations, it’s going to need to be able to go behind enemy lines and deliver that punch. That is going to really, really establish our primacy. It needs to be able to deny an adversary the ability to operate in their bastion regions. And that is what that platform is going to do. And we are confident we’re going to be able to do that because we’ve already built that on those previous platforms. We know how to do that, we just have to mesh it together with one platform. And the systems we have with electronic design tools, the stuff that we’ve already developed, we’re going to capitalize on that,” Houston explained.
Graney, too, noted how one program’s lessons learned and accomplishments can benefit another program, saying that “our experience with Virginia has helped us strengthen supplier capability, capacity and first-time quality” to reduce risk going into Columbia production.
“It’s also helped us understand and refine fully electronic design and product development software” that are also being used on Columbia and will be used for SSN(X) as well. And “our Virginia orders have supported growing our workforce and establishing partnerships with our state and local entities to increase training opportunities that support proficiency among our employees, along with higher rates of first-time quality” that will improve cost and schedule performance of any submarine program those employees work on.
But, Graney said, the Navy needs to finalize the SSN(X) requirements on time to take advantage of the heel-to-toe efficiencies of using the Columbia design team to design SSN(X), for example.
“The conversations I’ve had with Adm. Houston have been along the lines with what he just talked about it: it’s about speed, it’s about punching power, and it’s about acoustic superiority. We’d love to see those requirements get settled down, so that we know exactly what we are designing. And I think we’re getting more and more in sync with each passing day, which I think is great. From my perspective, we’ve got the design team coming off of Columbia right now, so they’re a hot hand, having just developed that, and now’s the time to transition to the new SSN(X) design. We’re ready to go,” Graney said.
This could become an issue, as Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Harker wrote in a June memo that the Navy may need to prioritize just one major modernization program – either SSN(X), aa next-generation destroyer or a next-generation fighter – and slow the other two down due to funding constraints.
Many across the Navy, industry and think tanks have worried about the stability of the submarine industrial base, particularly as future fleet plans call for a larger attack submarine fleet – perhaps around 70 attack subs, compared to today’s 50 – that the Navy needs to start building sooner rather than later.
Houston, however, expressed confidence that, if industry is given the stability it needs, it can maintain building two SSNs a year now and then ramp up in the immediate aftermath of completing the Columbia SSBN program.
Though some have called for building three SSNs a year to begin this ramp-up – former Defense Secretary Mark Esper called for moving to three-a-year construction immediately in his October 2020 rollout of a Battle Force 2045 plan, and lawmakers including Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., have also advocated the higher rate – Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday said earlier this year it would take a $2 billion investment in shipyard infrastructure and workforce to enable three-a-year attack sub construction alongside Columbia construction. Houston says that’s not necessary.
“If you go to three per year to try and peak on submarines with Virginia, being a 33-year life-of -hip platform, we start building three per year, you’re ending up with a force structure of 99 [compared to the requirement for around 70]. And so as we’re reconstituting Colombia and building two Virginia’s per year, when the last Colombia hull is delivered, or even actually commenced construction in ’35, we’re going to have significant capacity then. So we have the capability to go the three per year right now; the issue is is that we’ve got Columbia under construction. So we’re just doing that balancing right now,” he said, suggesting that 2035 would be the better time for looking at increasing SSN construction rates.
“We’re concentrating on doing the Columbia and two Virginias per year, we’re looking how we can get up to three. But we’re sure that when Colombia, that last hull is under construction, we’re going to have significant capacity. When you take a look at a Virginia Block V, it’s about 10,000 tons – it’s about half of a Columbia right now. So every Columbia that’s being constructed is really the equivalent in size of two Virginias So right now, with the first hull under construction and two Virginias being appropriated and authorized this year, we’re essentially building four equivalent Virginias. So the capacity is there. It’s more about the stability and avoiding” the bust-boom cycles of submarine acquisition the Navy has seen in the past.
Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.