Navy trying to avoid idle subs

The Navy is trying to prevent 15 of its attack submarines from being sidelined for 177 months while awaiting maintenance.

At the beginning of this year, six attack submarines were expected to sit idle for a year or more, drawing comparisons to the USS Boise, a "poster child" for what happens when maintenance gets deferred, said U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District.

The Boise, a Los Angeles-class attack submarine, has sat pierside in Virginia since May 31, 2016, due to a backlog at the Navy's public shipyards, which prioritize ballistic missile submarines, given their role in the nuclear triad, and aircraft carriers. At the same time, there's high demand for attack submarines, due in large part to a surge in Russian and Chinese activity. As a result, deployments are being stretched, maintenance is being delayed, and ships are coming in with more wear and tear.

To reduce the time that the Boise would be out of service, the Navy opted to bid the work out to private shipyards — Electric Boat in Groton and Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia. Newport News won the contract, valued at up to $386 million, and work is expected to start in January 2019.

To avoid another Boise situation, the Navy has worked to reduce the collective idle time for all 15 submarines, including the Boise, by eight years. It has done this by better planning for maintenance periods and shifting around schedules and workloads.

If submarines don't get required maintenance done in time, they lose their dive certification, preventing them from submerging. In some cases, the Navy has extended dive certifications after evaluating the material condition of a submarine. It's also chosen to further delay submarines scheduled for inactivation as opposed to postponing maintenance for submarines returning to the fleet.

This isn't just a Navy issue. Top military officials have testified before Congress that budget constraints and uncertainty have forced them to make tough choices between addressing immediate operation needs and ensuring long-term readiness.

While the Navy will contract out submarine maintenance work to private shipyards, it doesn't like to do this because it says it's more expensive. Courtney countered that claim, saying the government is already paying for personnel and facilities costs at the public yards, so it's not really factored into overhaul costs. Private yards, however, have to include these and other overhead costs when bidding on this work.

Going forward, EB will have only a small window of time to take on this kind of work. Once the company begins building Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines, in addition to Virginia-class attack submarines, it won't have the capacity for big submarine maintenance jobs.

Meanwhile, there's been debate in Congress about increasing the build rate of Virginia-class attack submarines from two to three in some years. Officials have said this would help mitigate an anticipated drop in the number of attack submarines in service.

j.bergman@theday.com

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