Navy unable to maintain its attack submarines
USS Oklahoma City (SSN 723) approaches the pier while returning home to Guam, June 29.
Photo by U.S. Navy/CSSN Jonathan Perez
Manpower shortages at Navy shipyards have been causing significant backlogs in maintenance of attack submarines that remain idle for long periods of time, costing the Department of Defense $1.5 billion for the past 10 years and compromising the Navy’s ability to respond to any unforeseen contingency, according to a federal audit.
The Government Accountability Office’s analysis of Navy maintenance data shows that between fiscal year 2008 and 2018, attack submarines have incurred 10,363 days of idle time and maintenance delays due to delays in getting into and out of the shipyards.
GAO’s audit, for example, found that the USS Boise, homeported in Virginia, was scheduled to enter a shipyard for an extended maintenance period in 2013 but, due to heavy shipyard workload, the Navy delayed the start of the maintenance period. Due to such delays, the USS Boise could no longer conduct normal operations as of June 2016, and the boat has remained idle for over two years since then waiting to enter a shipyard.
The Navy currently has 51 attack submarines — comprising 33 Los Angeles class, 3 Seawolf class, and 15 Virginia class submarines. Attack submarines are homeported at bases in the United States; New London, Connecticut; Pearl Harbor, Hawaii; Norfolk, Virginia; San Diego, California; and Bangor, Washington; and Guam. These submarines are responsible for attacking enemy surface ships and submarines, intelligence collection and surveillance, striking land targets, and special operations force insertion.
“According to Navy documentation, attack submarines’ stealthy nature provides an asymmetric advantage for gathering intelligence undetected and, due to their nuclear power, allows for prolonged underwater operations with few practical limits,” GAO said. “These capabilities make attack submarines some of the most requested assets by the geographic combatant commanders.”
According to its 30-year shipbuilding plan submitted to Congress in February, the Navy wants to build 10 more attack submarines between 2019 and 2023.
Guam is home to the Navy’s only submarine tenders, USS Emory S. Land (AS 39) and USS Frank Cable (AS 40), as well as four Los Angeles-class attack submarines—USS Key West (SSN 722), USS Topeka (SSN 754), USS Asheville (SSN 758) and USS Oklahoma City (SSN 723), all based in Apra Harbor. According to the Navy’s 30-year shipbuilding plan submitted to Congress in February, USS Oklahoma City is scheduled to be decommissioned by 2019 and USS Key West in 2022. USS Oklahoma City was commissioned on July 1988, and USS Key West in September 1987.
“Attack submarines that go too long without receiving required maintenance are at risk of having their materiel certification expire. Should this certification expire, these submarines are restricted to sitting idle, pierside, while they wait until a shipyard has the capacity to begin their maintenance period,” GAO states in a report published Nov. 19.
“Providing the military forces needed to deter war and to protect the security of the United States is a fundamental mission of the Department of Defense, and DOD has made the sustainment of ready forces a priority for meeting mission needs,” GAO said.
In May 2016, GAO reported that the Navy faced significant challenges in rebuilding readiness. In a follow-up report in August 2018, GAO observed that while the military rebuilds its forces’ readiness, it continued “to be challenged by a demand for forces that, at times, outpaces the available supply.”
Delays in submarine maintenance, GAO said, curbs the Navy forces’ ability to respond to any unexpected crisis. “As we previously reported, completing ship and submarine maintenance on time is essential to Navy readiness, as maintenance periods lasting longer than planned could reduce the number of days during which ships and crews are available for training or operations,” GAO said.
GAO noted that the Navy has started addressing challenges related to workforce shortages and facilities needs at the public shipyards. “However,” the report added, “it has not effectively allocated maintenance periods among public and private shipyards that may also be available to help minimize attack submarine idle time.”
GAO has recommended that the Navy mitigate the idle time and maintenance delays by leveraging private shipyard capacity for repair work. “But the Navy has not completed a comprehensive business case analysis as recommended by Department of Defense guidelines to inform maintenance workload allocation across public and private shipyards,” the report said.
Without addressing this challenge, GAO warned that “the Navy risks continued expenditure of operating and support funding to crew, maintain, and support attack submarines that provide no operational capability because they are delayed in getting into and out of maintenance.”
“The Navy expects the maintenance backlogs at the public shipyards to continue,” the report said. “We estimate that, as a result of these backlogs, the Navy will incur approximately $266 million in operating and support costs in fiscal year 2018 constant dollars for idle submarines from fiscal year 2018 through fiscal year 2023, as well as additional depot maintenance delays.”