The Navy’s four “national shipyards” have been studied to death. After spending millions of the $21 billion Shipyard Infrastructure Optimization Program to study everything from shipyard employee traffic patterns to yard environmental impacts and potential historical contributions, the Navy remains in the full grip of an attack submarine maintenance crisis. Rather than act, the Navy now wants to study the shipyards some more, to see if the Navy really needs to add a new national—or public—shipyard.

A new study is a recipe for doing nothing.

When done, the research will simply echo the maintenance warnings detailed in years and years of prior studies of the U.S. Navy’s submarine fleet. But then, of course, the cozy, insular, and do-nothing U.S. admiralty will, again, content itself by demanding even more studies. While studies make for gainful Pentagon employment, they are a poor substitute for productivity and generate little in the way of additional fighting force. It is time for the Navy to make big decisions.

Another study, coming in the wake of dire Navy warnings over Taiwan and increased Russian undersea activities, is a waste of precious time.

The Navy’s never-ending “get real, get better” analysis trap masks systemic leadership failure. At some point, the dithering must stop. The U.S. Navy, while it cannot be certain that any big decision is the right one, is still “on watch.” For better or worse, the U.S. Navy must—after years of delay and denial—make a decision or suffer a fate similar to the hapless Mr. Hollom, an indecisive midshipman portrayed in the popular maritime cult movie “Master and Commander.”

A New National Shipyard Is An Obvious Requirement

After warning that China may soon get aggressive at sea, the Navy has proposed some some mighty leisurely timelines to justify further inaction. There is just no urgency on the part of the Navy. The study on a new National Shipyard is only set to begin sometime next year, and it will merely be a “scoping study,” crafted to justify further study by whomever occupies White House in two years.

The effort, described by Rear Admiral Jonathan Rucker, the program executive officer for attack submarines, is to “go scope how capable our shipyards could be.”

That’d certainly be a great study, if the Navy hadn’t already been spending millions of dollars on, ostensibly, just that very thing. Since 2017, the Navy Shipyard Infrastructure Optimization Program has been working “to produce a virtual, unconstrained optimization of infrastructure solutions…to improve process flow and production efficiencies.”

Admiral Rucker is also framing the problem incorrectly. He ostensibly wants to reset performance back to the year 2000, when “we used to start about 12 availabilities per year” with an average duration of about 200 days. Today, says Rucker, “we start about five availabilities per year” with an average duration of about 450-700 days.

That’s a great goal, but the performance shifts have more to do with an overall increase in National Shipyard demand than in a decline in National Shipyard performance.

In 2000, the Navy’s submarine fleet didn’t need a lot of maintenance. At that time, the attack submarine fleet was dominated by spry, relatively new Los Angeles class boats. It was a young fleet. Less than 10% of the attack submarine fleet had more than 25 years of service. It was a simpler fleet, too. A few aged Sturgeon class subs hung on, and two new Seawolf class subs were newly-commissioned, but the fleet was, by and large, dominated by a single class of submarine.

Today, the Navy is struggling to deal with a far more complex and older fleet. The 26 Los Angeles class subs that remain in the fleet are old—the youngest was delivered 26 years ago. Now, 54% of the attack submarine fleet has served more than 25 years. One of the three Seawolves is sidelined due to an avoidable mishap. And then, on top of the added maintenance demands of the older subs, the Navy is still working to understand the Virginia class submarine fleet. With 21 in service, Navy leadership is only now really realizing that the Virginia class subs require far more maintenance than expected.

At heart, this new study proposal is about avoiding institutional accountability. Two decades ago, the Navy submarine community made faulty assumptions about the Virginia class submarine program and now, rather than take accountability for their mistakes, submarine community leaders are simply shifting the blame to America’s beleaguered national shipyards.

That is unfair. In the run-up to the 1993 Base Realignment and Closure Commission, the Navy, desperate to move beyond disastrous price blowouts on the attenuated 3-boat Seawolf class, was urging Congress to support the newly developing Virginia Class attack submarine. To make the “sale”, the Navy systematically underestimated the Virginia’s maintenance demands. But, by low-balling Virginia class submarine maintenance expectations, the Navy could not justify retaining two minor submarine repair yards—one in California and another in South Carolina. Those yards—repair yards that the nation now desperately needs—were closed in 1996.

A few years after the first Virginia class submarine entered the fleet, the Navy quietly doubled the maintenance requirements enumerated in the Virginia Class Maintenance Plan. As RAND quietly put it, the “dramatic increase in prescribed maintenance” reflected “an aggressive notional maintenance assumed in the acquisition phase” that was “adjusted when the lead submarines entered the fleet.”

In other words, the Navy pulled a bait-and-switch, and they don’t want to acknowledge it.

The Coast Guard Yard in Baltimore, Maryland. U.S. Coast Guard

Time For A New National Shipyard…In Baltimore

The need for a new national shipyard is obvious. But the Navy, just as it prepares to embark upon a new attack submarine design, is desperate to avoid admitting it made a mistake.

To change, America’s insular submarine community needs to open up to outside influences. The organization needs to trust the analysis that has already been done, and focus more attention on moving quickly.

Outside observers have urged the Navy start building new submarine maintenance facilities for years. But the submarine community does not want to hear about it. Almost four years ago—and just seven months before being relieved for an “inappropriate” relationship—the Naval Sea Systems Command Director of Industrial Operations took time from his busy day to mock my call in for a new national shipyard. Rather than discuss the merits of the idea, he wanted to know who I was working for, and why I would dare to offer such an uninformed opinion on naval maintenance, as I didn’t know anything.

My analysis remains the same. The Navy needs a new submarine maintenance yard. Rather than study shipyard workload—again—the Navy would be better served by moving swiftly to take some action-oriented steps. Nothing is stopping the Navy from determining where to put a new yard and figuring out how to consolidate duplicative workshops.

One good option might be to convert the Army’s little-used Curtis Bay depot in Baltimore, Maryland into a working national shipyard, capable of balancing the peaks and valleys of sub work with Department Of Homeland Security’s high-performing Coast Guard Yard, just a few hundred yards away.

Source: Forbes | Craig Hooper