Audit cites costly delays in submarine work, suggests more use of private firms
By HUGH LESSIG | Daily Press (Newport News, Va.) | Published: November 20, 2018
NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (Tribune News Service) — Chronic delays in maintaining the Navy’s attack submarine fleet have cost taxpayers $1.5 billion since 2008, and private shipyards like Newport News Shipbuilding could provide relief, a government audit says.
Besides the cost to taxpayers, attack submarines have racked up more than 10,000 days of idle time over that same period, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. It attributed the lost time to submarines waiting to enter a shipyard for work to start or delays after the job began.
Navy leaders have boosted hiring and made plans to invest in its four public shipyards, including Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth, which have operated above capacity.
But GAO said the Navy needs to develop a better business case for spreading the work between its public yards and the two private yards – including Newport News – that can handle extended maintenance on submarines.
The Newport News yard, a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries, currently already has such three maintenance contracts: the Boise, Helena and Columbus, all Los Angles-class subs.
The Defense Department agreed with GAO’s recommendation.
In a written response, it said the department “has taken the first steps to take a more holistic view of submarine maintenance requirements and impacts across both the public and private shipyards.”
A key member of Congress said the audit should be a wake-up call.
Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., called it “a sobering assessment of the challenges facing our undersea forces.”
Courtney’s district includes General Dynamics Electric Boat, the shipyard besides Newport News that handles overflow maintenance work.
EB and Newport News are also the only two shipyards that design and build nuclear-powered submarines, working in a unique teaming arrangement.
Navy leaders testifying before Congress have long praised advantages offered by its nuclear-powered attack submarines.
The fleet currently consists of 51 boats – 33 Los Angeles class, three Seawolf class and 15 of the newer Virginia class, currently being churned out by EB and Newport News at the rate of two per year.
The Navy’s four public shipyards perform the most detailed and time-consuming work on these subs, what the Navy calls depot-level maintenance. It involves alterations, refits, nuclear refueling and restorations.
GAO cited depot maintenance as the primary reason for delays; it accounted for 82 percent of 10,363 days of lost time since 2008. The other 18 percent was attributed to attack submarines waiting to enter shipyards.
The Navy has boosted hiring at its public shipyards and made plans to invest in facilities, machinery and dry docks. Meanwhile, some spillover to the private sector is already happening, as the work at Newport News indicates.
The Navy has shifted about 8 million man-hours in attack sub maintenance to private shipyards in the last five years, but “it has done so sporadically, having decided to do so in some cases only after experiencing length periods of idle time,” the GAO report states.
It called for a more systematic approach to allocate the work across public and private yards.
With the Democrats poised to take control of Congress, Courtney is in line to chair the sea power panel of the House Armed Services Committee, a key subcommittee for Navy shipbuilding and maintenance.
“This report makes clear that the Navy must do more to fully utilize the capacity of our private shipyards to reduce the backlog in submarine maintenance,” Courtney said, “something I have repeatedly urged the Navy to act on.”
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