WASHINGTON — The U.S. Navy’s three-star admiral in charge of fixing submarine maintenance delays says it will take four years to get the attack sub fleet back to its proper state of readiness.
In May, the Navy had twice as many attack submarines tied up in maintenance than it should have according to its own plans, due to delays at public and private yards conducting maintenance and modernization work. Sixty percent of the 50-boat fleet was available for operations, instead of the 80% goal set by the Navy.
About six months ago, then-Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday tapped Vice Adm. William Houston, the head of Naval Submarine Forces, as “the accountable officer for on-time delivery of submarines from public shipyards,” Houston told Defense News in a Nov. 6 interview.
While the operational availability rate has since risen to 66%, Houston said there’s much to do to reach the 80% goal by late fiscal 2027 or early fiscal 2028.
Houston said his efforts fall into three main pillars: planning, material and execution.
In many cases, the reforms he’s putting into place are well-known best practices, but he said the Navy hasn’t rigidly followed them. Now, he’s hoping the enforcement of these practices, coupled with coordination among supporting commands, will allow for a better outcome from efforts meant to tackle submarine maintenance woes.
More thoughtful planning
Houston said there are milestones built into the submarine maintenance availability planning period, but they’re not always adhered to.
In May, 70% of the metrics related to modernization were met, and 68% for planning were met. That’s grown to 96% and 95%, respectively, and is on track to reach 100% by the end of the year.
These milestones, if followed, ensure work packages are set early enough to allow for the right people and materials to be in place when a boat shows up at shipyards for work.
Even with the best planning, there’s more work for the submarine fleet than the Navy’s four public shipyards can conduct on time. As a result, Houston is looking for ways to reduce the work scope and to outsource some labor to private companies.
On the amount of work, Houston said the Los Angeles-class and Virginia-class subs have enough “engineering pedigree” that he’s comfortable skipping certain maintenance activity, or at least allowing the work to take place over a longer time period.
One time-consuming task involves preventing corrosion on tanks; workers blast off old paint and then repaint the tanks to preserve their structural integrity. But Houston said the quality of the paint is now so good that the time between corrosion-prevention work can be longer.
And, he noted, there are some systems on submarines that sailors don’t use anymore, yet maintenance packages still call for routine work on these systems. Houston said his team has cut items from work orders as a result.
When it comes to outsourcing, Houston said the Navy farms out about 100,000 days of work across all four yards. This work could involve refurbishing valves and pumps, performing structural repairs, or anything else private companies have the expertise to do. Houston said he plans to double that to 200,000 days of work by FY26, freeing up shipyard staffs to do what they’re uniquely qualified to do: plan and manage complex repairs on a nuclear-powered boat, as well as conduct test and certification activities.
A flood of spare parts
Houston said the lack of materials on hand has been a major hindrance to maintenance and modernization work. The Navy in its FY24 budget requested $2.4 billion over five years to try to flood the supply system with the necessary repair parts, which Houston said “will resolve a significant portion of the material challenges we face.”
The admiral noted it will take time for the parts to deliver, but in the meantime he holds meetings every Thursday afternoon to talk about materials with the Program Executive Office Attack Submarines, the Defense Logistics Agency, Naval Sea Systems Command’s logistics and engineering experts, shipyard commanders, and project supervisors for specific submarine availabilities.
When a material problem arises, they “swarm it.”
Since Houston took on the accountability role in May, the instances of missing parts that put on-time delivery in jeopardy have dropped by 40%, he said.
For the remaining issues, Houston said, there’s usually an available part somewhere, though it’s a matter of the right people talking to each other so they can find it.
For example, it may be the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard has an extra part that Norfolk Naval Shipyard can use. Or an operational submarine may have it in a spare parts locker and can lend it to a yard until a new one can be delivered as a replacement spare. In other instances, a comparable part could have with a different identification number in the supply system, and the shipyard just didn’t know to search for the alternate number.
Houston did not name sensitive components, but said several long-term supply problems were addressed in the past six months due to coordination among commands.
The Navy has acknowledged it didn’t invest in enough spare parts when it first kicked off the Virginia submarine program — something it’s trying to make up for. That’s manifested itself in a couple ways, including cannibalizing parts from one in-repair sub to another, or taking parts from new-construction submarines and thus delaying their construction and delivery to the fleet.
According to Houston, the head of that office, Rear Adm. Jon Rucker, is ensuring commercial off-the-shelf parts used to build new subs are compatible with older Virginia models so that he can intentionally order a greater number of these parts, knowing that some will be used to support repair activities.
Taking a part at the expense of new construction is now a “last resort” and something they haven’t done since this effort began in May, Houston said.
The admiral told Defense News in a follow-up discussion that the rate of cannibalization has dropped by 25% from last year to this year. However, he had explained, cannibalization may continue until the flood of new repair parts delivers.
Houston makes all the decisions on cannibalization, and he said he prefers identifying a single submarine that’s farthest from its planned delivery date to serve as the “parts donor” for the rest of the repair work.
Houston said his team is also focused on the quality of supervision to ensure maintenance work is performed well. After reviewing both recent availabilities that went well and didn’t, he said it’s clear the qualifications of supervisors play a big role.
Going forward, he wants to select a supervisor 24 months before the start of an availability so the individual is around for the entirety of the planning and execution phases.
New supervisors might take on relatively simpler jobs, whereas something new and challenging — the first Virginia-class availability at a particular shipyard that’s only done Los Angeles-class boats, for example — would be assigned to a much more experienced supervisor.
Houston said the Navy is also creating a qualification path and a defined career path for these supervisors, as well as looking at awards and retention incentives.
Fixed by FY27?
The Navy previously tried to tackle some of these very issues. In fact, Rucker said one year ago that he hoped to achieve significant improvements by FY26 by having more material on hand at the beginning of availabilities and cracking down on unplanned work creeping into the work package.
Houston said the planned $2.4 billion in funding makes him more confident this latest effort he’s overseeing will work. But it will take time for the money to flow to the vendors and translate to more parts on hand.
“It takes time to realize that gain. For [maintenance availabilities] in progress right now, none of those parts will actually arrive, or very few will. Even for some of the avails in planning, it will take time” to see on-time rates improve, he acknowledged.
But the cumulative impact of the other changes he’s put into place have already shown results. One sub recently undocked two weeks early, and a couple others may undock two months early.
“Even if we hold schedule, that’s a win for me. But in some cases, we’re pulling schedule to the left,” he said.
There will always be surprises in ship repair, he added, and there will always be a boat that delivers late. But his real goal, he said, is to create more margin so that the occasional late delivery doesn’t hurt the operational fleet.
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.