Save the Submarine Shipyards

By Captain James H. Patton, Jr., USN (Ret.)

For a number of reasons, the nation's nuclear submarine force and, particularly the Virginia (SSN-774)-class submarines and the industrial base that supports them, have been seen as a potential bill-payer for other priorities—or, at least, an area where near-term savings can be achieved by moving the planned program to the right, or by diminishing the industrial base. Neither of those proposed policy paths would take us in the right direction. And each involves added cost and risk.

Building Nuclear Submarines

Historically, submarine construction has been a difficult, inefficient, and very expensive proposition. It has often been identified as analogous to building a ship in a bottle, since much of the equipment and piping systems were installed after the pressure hull was essentially completed, bringing bits and pieces through 25-inch hatches to then assemble in place. For instance—and more art than science—a given segment of piping fabricated off-hull to match a heavy wire template would then be bent to shape on the ship to go above, behind, or around other already installed pipes, pumps, and paraphernalia. To allow for unavoidable inaccuracies, the ends of the pipes would have an extra few inches which would then be "dressed" (ground off) by an onboard pipefitter for a custom fit before being welded up by a different tradesman and artisan—who, incidentally, might have had to literally stand on his head to make the joint.

As a result, even within a given class of ship sequentially built at the same shipyard, no two submarines were alike regarding plumbing, wire runs, and other system layouts—much like automobiles before Henry Ford came along. A notable exception to this generalization was within the primary (reactor-associated) propulsion plant, where Admiral Rickover demanded a "non-deviation from plans" approach. Otherwise, with just a bit of exaggeration, building plans only helped assure that submarines of the same class were about the same width, height, and length.

During the period between 1963 and 1978, the author had the experience of both building and conducting refueling overhauls at each of the two shipyards presently involved in producing Virginia -class attack submarines. Each had its own personality at the time, and different internal techniques and procedures. The products from each yard, however, were uniformly good in spite of these different non-nuclear approaches to the task.

The author also saw, but was not directly involved with, the difficulties that originally plagued the Los Angeles (SSN-688)-class nuclear-powered submarines in the late 1970s and early 1980s when Electric Boat, traditionally the lead design agent for submarines, was building ships to Newport News plans and specifications. This forced marriage resulted in each yard essentially accusing the other of either producing blueprints that didn't match with realities or with an inability to read them correctly. One of the results of this dichotomy was that, for a period, the failure to deliver submarines resulted in the Groton, Connecticut, and Newport News, Virginia, shipyards each having one of the largest four or five nuclear submarine forces in the world. Similar, though less traumatic, problems occurred during the Seawolf design, where "the front end" was designed in Newport News and the propulsion plant in Groton, and there were real or imagined cases where "interfaces" between each shipyard's efforts didn't properly mate up.

For the most part, however, all this changed with the construction of the Seawolf class, and the advanced construction techniques pioneered in that program were further refined in the Virginia class. On 23 October 2004, USS Virginia became the first U.S. nuclear-powered submarine commissioned in seven years. Testifying to this improvement in production is the fact that this "first-of-a-class" ship was delivered within four months of a schedule written six years earlier, and was constructed with more than a 25% savings in labor costs when compared with Seawolf . 1 To thoroughly appreciate the impact of these revolutionary changes in the manner by which submarines are built, consider the findings of the U.S. Navy In Service (INSURV) board. This organization inspects all new and, periodically, already commissioned, ships for their compliance with specifications, safety, and other standards. It is common for newly constructed, particularly first-of-a-class ships, to have far more deficiencies than a ship that has been operating for some period of time. The Virginia , however, had fewer deficiencies than any other operating ship that had been inspected during the previous twelve months. If any further proof is needed that the design and construction of Virginia heralded a true revolution in shipbuilding, it is generally accepted that its techniques and procedures were the reason why the 104-foot USS Jimmy Carter (SSN-23) "Multi-Mission Platform" insert could be conceived, constructed, and rolled into a Seawolf hull as quickly as it was. This second success story bodes well for generating future versions of Virginia to include those to replace current nuclear-powered guided-missile submarines (SSGNs) and strategic missile submarines (SSBNs).

Targeting Nuclear Submarines

Why, then, is the future of a vibrant and busier-than-ever submarine force, supported by efficiently produced and operationally capable platforms of the Virginia class, threatened by stretched-out production schedules and a weakened industrial base? The reason, as is so often the case, is money—and short-range solutions to near-term fiscal shortfalls are now seriously undermining the nation's long-term capability to build and sustain a dominant undersea force. U.S. submarine roles and missions, alternative force levels, and the various options on how to reach and maintain them were the focus of a recent Congressional Research Service report. 2 In that study, the present method—where the General Dynamics Electric Boat shipyard in Groton and the Northrop Grumman Newport News shipyard co-produce Virginia hulls then alternate final assembly, test, and delivery—was compared to alternate schemes. The present arrangement was deemed optimum for what was to be initially a one ship per year buy, but planned to increase to two ships per year (one for each yard) construction rate as early as 2002.

Budgetary pressures, however, have caused planners to keep shifting the transition to the higher rate almost continually to the right. Unless current plans are changed, the earliest fiscal year in which two submarines could be authorized is 2012. A decision to build only one ship per year would result in the present force level of about 54 SSNs (down from 98 in 1990) steadily diminishing to a low of 28 before leveling out at 33—the expected life of a Virginia . This is far below the numbers of submarines that even the most optimistic of Navy and DoD studies show will be required in the future.

One of the tempting short-term options for reducing unit cost of the Virginia -class SSN is to eliminate the present two-shipyard approach to one-ship-per-year construction, assuming that the two-shipyard option would always be available in the future when additional fiscal resources were available or when geopolitical realities made it urgent. This would be a strategic mistake of the first order, with a multitude of unintended consequences. First, to even conceive of a myth that a two-shipyard submarine industrial base could be resurrected in the future, the production line terminated would have to be the Northrop-Grumman Newport News shipyard (presuming the yard could survive on carrier business), since ending the line at General Dynamics Electric Boat would be tantamount to shutting the yard down. If the Newport News submarine production were terminated, however, there would be an inevitable impact on the shipyard's ability to support the two-a-decade nuclear-powered aircraft carrier program, since the steady submarine effort justifies their world-class Apprentice School and maintains nuclear skills between carrier construction.

In this regard, remember that the United kingdom, the world's third largest builder of nuclear submarines, allowed its nuclear shipbuilding skills to atrophy and was obliged to request intervention from U.S. shipyards to get the new Astute -class SSN program back on track. Also, although support of the present two-shipyard concept acknowledges room to fine-tune procedures and practices to gain further savings, those steps pale in comparison to what some say would be as much as $1 billion in "disentanglement costs" associated with breaking the present teaming agreement.

Moreover, the administrative and engineering differences that plagued two-shipyard construction are a thing of the past. Because of the efforts in establishing an entirely digital on-line-data/blueprint base from which both shipyards operate and can exchange engineering changes in real time, there is virtually no difference between the yards in processes, procedures, or product. For the first time in U.S. shipbuilding history, two geographically remote shipyards are producing identical products. As previously touched upon, this achievement will pay significant dividends in the mid- and long-term future as the techniques and procedures created in and for the design and production of the basic Virginia hull (particularly the propulsion plant) support the development of follow-on SSNs, SSGNs, and SSBNs (perhaps all functions being performed by a common hull, serially and identically produced in both shipyards).

Finally, the argument for two separate yards supporting this key element of US strategic dominance must be bolstered by the realities of the threat of terrorism. TOPOFF 3, the largest Homeland Security drill ever conducted, was held recently around the New London, Connecticut, area, which includes Groton. Although this particular simulated terrorist attack was of a chemical and conventional explosive nature, it is clear that a very real terrorist threat exists, particularly in and about seaports, involving nuclear devices or radiological dirty bombs. As a side benefit, nuclear-capable shipyards and naval personnel from nearby nuclear-powered ships might serve as an invaluable "first responder" and subsequent clean-up source. But in the worst imaginable case, with two shipyards forming the industrial base, the resources of one area might compensate for the incapacitation of the other.

Saving Nuclear Submarines

Indisputably, there is a delicate balance to be achieved between cost, a continuing design and industrial base, and a militarily necessary force level. The extraordinary present capabilities and room for growth of the Virginia are not to be treated lightly. Just as the late-1950s Skipjack was really the prototype for about 100 subsequent SSNs and SSBNs in the 20th century, essential elements of the Virginia will be with us for the better part of the 21st century in SSN, SSBN, and SSGN variants. The present two-shipyard approach evolving to a two-per-year submarine build rate is the proper means by which to both populate and maintain a minimum force level while maintaining the "cocked" gun industrial surge capability to four or even six a year if a rapid restocking of the nation's military portfolio with these crown jewels (or their evolved relatives) becomes a mandate. The relatively high present unit cost is an unfortunate artificiality caused by a draw-back from the planned build rate, but should be tolerated as the price of admiralty for a nation that hopes to continue to dominate the maritime commons—and to dominate from them.

Captain Patton served on five nuclear-powered attack submarines, two ballistic-missile submarines, and commanded the USS Pargo (SSN-650). A frequent Proceedings contributor, he was the technical consultant to Paramount Pictures for the film version of The Hunt for Red October , which was based on a book first published by the Naval Institute Press in 1984—now in its 39th printing.

   1. For a good description of the highly innovative practices and procedures improved, devised, and implemented in support of these newest attack submarines, see RAdm. John D. Butler, USN, "Building Submarines for Tomorrow," U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , June 2004, pp. 51-54. back to article
   2. Ronald O'Rourke, "Navy Attack Submarine Force-Level Goal and Procurement Rate: Background and Issues for Congress," updated January 18, 2005, Order Code RL32418. back to article


Captain Patton served on five nuclear-powered attack submarines, two ballistic-missile submarines, and commanded the USS Pargo (SSN-650). A frequent Proceedings contributor, he was the technical consultant to Paramount Pictures for the film version of The Hunt for Red October, which was based on a book first published by the Naval Institute Press in 1984—now in its 39th printing.

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