By Geoff Fein
The Navy is continuing to explore ways to trim costs and schedule for construction and delivery of Virginia-class submarines to enable the boats to increase deployments and decrease shipyard availabilities, according to a service official.
The improvements the Navy has been able to make in schedule are really due to the success of the efforts of ‘design for affordability’ the service pursued as it began work on the Block 3 submarines, Capt. Michael Jabaley, Virginia-class program manager, told Defense Daily recently.
One of the key efforts for achieving two Virginia-class submarines per year was to reduce the construction span, he noted. The success of that work is due in part to the leadership of Rear Adm. William Hilarides, program executive officer (PEO) submarines, and Rear Adm. Dave Johnson, deputy commander for Undersea Technology (SEA 073) and deputy PEO Submarines for Ohio-class SSBN Replacement (PEO SUB-OR). Johnson will take over Oct. 1 as the new PEO Submarines.
Jabaley said the entire Team Submarine had an understanding of how to reach its goals.
“We had a rally cry of two for four in ’12, and an understanding that construction span reduction was a key part of that,” he said. “Then we let the smart people go to work. We put them in a room and said come up with every idea to fix things that hold you back from building these submarines faster.”
Those things included looking at the transport capacity of the sea shuttle to ship larger modules from General Dynamics‘ [GD] Quonset Point Facility to its Groton shipyard to Northrop Grumman‘s [NOC] Newport News site, Jabaley added. “That allowed us to build the ship in four modules instead of 10.”
Other efforts included installing more equipment earlier in the construction phase, he said.
“Instead of a pressure hull complete submarine, you are doing it out in the open, modular outfitting facilities where the internal modules of the submarines are accessible instead of being inside the hull cylinder,” Jabaley said. “All of those combined in pieces here and pieces there to get that construction span improvement.”
But while the Virginia-class program has been able to shave months off of its delivery schedule, Jabaley acknowledges there comes a time where the Navy reaches a point of diminishing returns.
“We are very cognizant of that. We want to make sure we don’t exceed that and create other problems,” he said.
Pre-Commissioning Unit Missouri (SSN-780) was delivered nine months ahead of the contract delivery date, Jabaley said. The boat was built in a span of 65 months.
“We are well on our way to target, which is 60 months. The Block 3 contract sets contract delivery date for each of those eight ships at 66 months,” he said. “So we have already delivered one of our later Block 2 submarines at 65 months. We are reevaluating our targets for Block 3, but we are cognizant of not going so low that we start to create problems elsewhere.”
The first 18 Virginia-class submarines are spread across three blocks, with the Navy building four in Block 1, six in Block 2 and eight in Block 3.
Three years ago when the Navy submitted its long-range shipbuilding strategy, the plan made it clear that in the future, the service would fall below a fleet of 48 fast attack submarines. Then Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Mullen ordered a study to find out how the Navy was going to mitigate this decline in SSNs, Jabaley said.
“One of the mitigation actions recommended by that study was to continue to improve Virginia-class construction and deliver the ships as early as possible,” he said. “The mitigation study set of target of actually 60 months or five years.”
The Navy is continuing to work down to that point, Jabaley noted. “Our targets for some of the later Block 3 submarines are 60 months. That’s my stated goal right now, to deliver a submarine within five years.”
The Navy continues to evaluate every phase of manufacturing to see where time can be taken out of the schedule, he added.
“Right now, our biggest benefit is in the early stages of manufacturing. Once you get the ship to pressure hull complete it is pretty lockstep from there on out. We’ve wrung most of the slack out of that schedule,” Jabaley explained. “We are fully focusing on the early years at this point.”
Hand in hand with reducing the build schedule for Virginia-class submarines are efforts to continue to cuts costs from the program. Jabaley’s focus right now is on continuing to reduce the acquisition costs wherever possible.
“What I am really interested in right now is addressing total ownership cost,” he said. Total ownership cost spans the entire spectrum from initial design until to disposal, and it is very difficult to effect once you’ve already built and delivered seven subs.”
What Jabaley and his team are working on is addressing the maintenance of the ship, with the goal of improving operational availability. “Because that is why you build the submarines, so they can go on deployment.
“Everything you do for a submarine is intended to get the ship ready for deployment, or to get it on deployment, or to keep it on deployment,” he added. “So everything else, training, workup, exercises, tactical development, and maintenance, is there to support getting that ship on deployment.”
The measure of success, when it comes to discussing operational availability, is how many full length deployments does the submarine get over the length of its lifetime, Jabaley said.
“A full-length deployment is nominally six months, and it takes about a two-year cycle to do a deployment–one-and-a-half years of maintenance and workup and that six-month deployment,” he noted.
Submarines are designed for a life span of 33 years, Jabaley said. If it takes two years for every deployment, as well as a significant amount of depot level maintenance– that’s when the boats go in for extended periods of time, whether it is an Extended Dry-docking Selected Restricted Availability (EDSRA) or Depot Maintenance Period (DMP), or overhaul, those add up over the life of the ship and take away from those 33 years, he added.
“The goal is to improve this balance between depot-level maintenance and deployment,” Jabaley said.
When the Navy first laid out the maintenance plan for the Virginia-class and added everything up, it was based on a lot of projections, lessons learned from previous classes of ships, and unknowns about how new technologies would perform, Jabaley said.
“We essentially came up with the ability to do 13 deployments because the total amount of maintenance we would have to do over those 33 years took away enough time you could only get 13 deployments,” he said.
“We since refined that and worked down the amount of depot-level maintenance to where we are now at 14 deployments and four separate depot-level availability periods,” Jabaley said. “So four times over the life of the ship, each ship has to go into Portsmouth Naval Shipyard or Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard and undergo eight, 10, or 12 months of depot- level maintenance at a time. My goal is to increase the number of deployments by one and get them to 15, and reduce the total number of availabilities by one and take it from four down to three.”