Valerie Insinna, Defense Daily
8 April 2016
The Navy wants to continue buying two Virginia-class attack submarines a year even as it starts procurement of its expensive new ballistic missile submarines, but whether it will be able to do so is far from a sure thing, the service’s acquisition executive told lawmakers on Wednesday.
The service plans to start procuring both Ohio replacement and the Virginia-class submarines in fiscal year 2021, buying one of each class that year. It would like to continue buying two Virginia-class boomers per year as well as a new Ohio replacement submarine (SSBN(X)), but funding and workload could be barriers to doing so, said Sean Stackley, assistant secretary of the Navy research, development and acquisition.
“We have to manage the growth that’s going to be required, because we’re going to double the amount of submarine work,” he said during a Senate Armed Services seapower subcommittee hearing. “But when we talk about maintaining two Virginias per year, once we get up on that plateau, we’re there. Then we have to sustain it.”
After the hearing, Stackley explained to reporters that the Navy measures shipbuilding capacity in two ways: Whether a company’s facilities can handle the increased workload and whether there is a large enough workforce to build the vessels on schedule. Because of the size and complexity of the SSBN(X), even transitioning to one Ohio replacement and one Virginia-class sub would increase workload by 50 percent, he said.
The service recently developed a Submarine Unified Build Strategy that assessed the submarine industrial base—including General Dynamics [GD] Electric Boat and Huntington Ingalls Industries [HII] Newport News, the only two shipyards capable of submarine construction—and identified whether facility expansions and upgrades are necessary.
"We're moving forward in terms of those upgrades to the facilities. That part of the capacity is being addressed and it will be well in place by the time we start building the Ohio replacement program,” he said.
Workforce, however, is a more difficult issue to address. It would be premature for the companies to begin significantly ramping up the employment of skilled laborers needed to build three subs a year, Stackley said. However, the Navy currently is in discussions with both shipbuilders to determine the optimal time to hire additional workers.
"We’ve basically laid out a notional construction plan across Ohio replacement plus Virginia to see what does that look like in terms of skilled labor, engineering and manufacturing. And there are challenges there,” he said. “The challenges are less after having gone through this unified build strategy approach and identifying where we also have capacity.”
One way to address those issues involves adjusting the workload on the Virginia submarines to keep the Ohio replacement on track, he said. According to the Submarine Unified Build Strategy, which designated Electric Boat the prime contractor for SSBN(X), Newport News could take on additional deliveries of the Virginia class (Defense Daily, March 29). Under the current construct, both builders split construction of the Virginia-class and alternate which company performs assembly and final delivery.
Finding the funding for an additional submarine is also a challenge, in large part because the Navy already will need an expansion of its shipbuilding budget to pay for the expensive Ohio replacement, Stackley said.
“Our success in being able to sustain two Virginias through the Ohio replacement program cycle is going to depend on our success in getting two in '21 that first year and executing, and then our success in getting some relief, some help in terms of financing the Ohio replacement during the 15 year period of that program,” he said.
"We’re working this as a top priority in our 2018 budget bill,” he added.