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Next-generation attack subs will be designed with maintenance in mind

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VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — With its Virginia class of attack submarines suffering from maintenance woes and low operational availability, the U.S. Navy is working to ensure its next attack submarine is easier to sustain, according to the program executive officer for attack submarines.

The Navy has 50 attack submarines, but 18 of those are in maintenance and not available to operational commanders, according to Rear Adm. Jon Rucker.

“That’s too high a number,” he said Sept. 21 at the American Society of Naval Engineers’ annual Fleet Maintenance and Modernization Symposium here. He noted submarine maintenance has faced challenges in planning availabilities, executing the work and keeping sufficient parts and material on hand for the repair periods.

Rucker said PEO Attack Submarines is revisiting the maintenance plan for these Virginia SSNs in the hopes of improving sustainment and that the Navy must take a better approach while designing the SSN(X) next-generation attack submarine to ensure high operational availability and easier sustainment throughout the lifecycle.

Coming off of the Cold War-era Seawolf-class submarine, designed to be fast, lethal and stealthy, the Navy took a different approach with the Virginia class, Rucker said, and opted to “build a submarine for an affordable cost to ensure we could get the numbers we needed.”

“I’m not going to say that sustainment came as an afterthought but, to be honest, it was … a challenge we’ll deal with later,” he added. “Unfortunately, some of that challenge is here today.”

At the same conference, Rear Adm. Scott Brown, who oversees maintenance at the Navy’s four public shipyards, said the service didn’t make the required upfront investments when designing and acquiring the Virginia class, meaning shipyard workers today reach for parts and components and find they’re not there.

“It’s resulting in a lot of churn, a lot of cannibalization — so we have to take things off other boats to stick them on the boat we’re trying to get out — and a lot of, frankly, frustration with the workforce on waiting for stuff that doesn’t exist,” Brown said. “Of course, that leads to delays.”

Rucker said the Navy must ensure that doesn’t happen with future classes.

The first boat of the Columbia class of ballistic missile submarines is under construction now. Rucker, who previously served as program manager for the Columbia class, said the Navy designed the ship with maintenance in mind, even bringing in ship maintainers for their input on potential issues such as access and rigging points.

Maintenance is also a focus for the SSN(X) program, he said.

“There are things we’ve already learned on Virginia: of the over a million parts, less than 0.1% of the design is not doing what we thought it would from [a life expectancy perspective]. It’s 32 items, to be exact,” Rucker said. “We’ve already figured out what those were, we redesigned them or changed the maintenance cycle.”

Those improved parts could be used on SSN(X).

Rucker said the SSN(X) design phase prioritizes this focus on maintenance. The program’s initial capabilities document lays out four top-level requirements: speed, stealth, payloads, and operational availability.

The U.S. Coast Guard is learning a similar lesson during a significant and ongoing recapitalization of its fleet, its director of acquisition programs said during the same conference.

Rear Adm. Chad Jacoby said the Coast Guard previously did not consider sustainment much during the acquisition phase of a program. But the service is now realizing sustaining its new generation of ships will be wildly different than older ones.

When it comes to midlife overhaul availabilities for its first National Security Cutters, the Coast Guard now sees the engines and generators won’t drive the cost and duration of the maintenance periods; instead, it will be the command, control, communications, computers, cyber and intelligence (C5I) systems.

“We have a budget request in; it’s going to be much more than we’ve ever spent on a midlife,” Jacoby said.

This has pushed the Coast Guard to focus more on sustainment and logistics during the acquisition phase. The Coast Guard established a Surface Acquisitions Logistics Center in Baltimore to act as a go-between with the acquisition community and the fleet maintenance community.

With the first three Offshore Patrol Cutters in construction and the Polar Security Cutter on contract — both of which are significantly more technologically complex and capable compared to their predecessors — “we are more advanced now with building the sustainment into acquisitions,” he said.

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.

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