A new Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report released finds the Navy’s four public shipyards have experienced “significant delays” in finishing submarine maintenance, affecting operational readiness. Moreover, the report projects the yards’ workload will continue to exceed capacity in the coming decades.

The March 25 CBO report, the Capacity of the Navy’s Shipyards to Maintain Its Submarines, noted that the Navy has 70 submarines that represent almost one quarter of the total fleet. Navy policy dictates most maintenance on them, as nuclear-powered vessels, should be performed by the four shipyards owned and operated by the Navy: Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth, Va.; Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine; Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, Wash,; and Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

Cover of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report: The Capacity of the Navy’s Shipyards to Maintain Its Submarines, released March 25. (Image: CBO)
Cover of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report: The Capacity of the Navy’s Shipyards to Maintain Its Submarines, released March 25. (Image: CBO)

However, “those four public shipyards have experienced long delays—sometimes as long as several years—in performing maintenance on submarines. For example, after overhauls Virginia-class submarines have returned to operations almost nine months later than expected, on average; Los Angeles-class submarines have taken four and a half months longer than scheduled, on average, to return to the fleet.”

The result is some submarines have missed deployments or had deployments at sea shortened. This forces the Navy to reduce the number of submarines it can put to sea, “idling expensive ships and their skilled crews.”

CBO noted that in response to these issues in recent years the Navy has sent several submarines to private shipyards for maintenance. Nevertheless, the public yards still perform a majority of submarine maintenance. The Navy has also increased the number of workers at its shipyards to its goal of 37,000 and “taken steps to improve productivity.”

Previously, the shipyard workforce shrank from 62,000 in 1991 to 21,000 in 2001 after cutting half the public shipyards as part of Base Realignment and Closure process in the 1990s.

However, the report found maintenance delays “will continue despite those changes.”

“Barring other changes, required maintenance is projected to exceed the capacity of the Navy’s shipyards in 25 of the next 30 years,” CBO said.

The report pointed to two main causes to delays in public yards: the amount of maintenance the yards must perform in each overhaul has increased and the Navy has not hired enough new workers to keep up the pace with the workload.

“Those factors have increased the number of days nuclear ships spend in the shipyard and the number of days of labor that are required to complete their overhauls. Overhauls have exceeded the number of days of labor scheduled for overhauls by 13 percent to 26 percent, depending on the ship’s class,” the report said.

CBO underscored maintenance delays have been particularly acute for attack submarines since they are a lower priority than aircraft carriers and nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines.

“Over the past 12 years, overhauls of attack submarines have typically taken 20 percent to 40 percent longer than planned, both in terms of the number of days of labor required to complete the work and the length of time ships spend in the shipyard.”

Despite the Navy’s work on increasing shipyard workers and productivity, “CBO projects that the demand for maintenance over the next few decades will exceed the supply of labor in most years.”

This is due to the fact the Navy’s submarines require more days of labor for overhauls than the Navy planned.

“As a result, the shipyards will not be able to complete future overhauls on schedule.”

Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth, Va. (Photo: GAO)
Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth, Va. (Photo: GAO)

Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic caused additional delays, affecting productivity at the shipyards, with CBO projecting a five percent decrease in yard productivity in 2020 and 2021.

CBO’s shipyard capacity estimates assumed the Navy’s Shipyard Infrastructure Optimization Plan (SIOP) to address public yard infrastructure needs, like improving old dry docks, will be implemented with the service’s expected efficiency gains. The Navy expects SIOP to result in savings of 328,000 days of labor per year, or about five percent fewer hours of labor needed.

The report also noted what impact a significantly larger fleet could have in the 30-year shipbuilding plan and Battle Force 2045 plans released in December. Under the plan to increase the fleet to 405 ships by 2050, the attack submarine force grows to 80 vessels compare to a previous 65 planned submarines in the fiscal year 2020 shipbuilding plan.

Both increased submarine production and planned service life extensions for existing submarines would result in 50 or more attack submarines in the fleet through the 2020s, “leading to higher long-term maintenance needs for the submarine fleet.”

CBO warned that “the additional ships could spend years waiting for maintenance rather than being deployed unless the shipyards’ capacity was increased to accommodate the larger fleet” and the new plans would be “challenging to execute.”

The report offered four policy options that might help reduce or alleviate delays: improve accuracy of maintenance projections and adjust operating schedules accordingly; increase the shipyards’ workforce by another 2,500 personnel; shift an equivalent amount of additional nuclear fleet maintenance to private shipyards; and reduce the size of the nuclear fleet. CBO noted the second and third options would each cost about $275 million more per year.

However, if the Navy indeed grew the attack submarine force to 80 in 2050 as in the December plans, costs of refueling and procurement would increase; 4,000 more shipyard workers would be needed beyond the optional 2,500 named above; and it would cost $440 million more per year beyond the $275 million per year above.