Builders of Navy submarines for years have tried to convince admirals and members of Congress that trouble lies ahead.
They contend that unless the Navy increases submarine production and begins to design the next generation boats, the shipyards will lose irreplaceable skilled workers. Once that happens, the Navy would have to pay a huge premium to reconstitute the workforce if and when it chooses to start over.
The problem comes down to simple economics. As submarines have become more expensive and time consuming to build, the Navy has been able to afford fewer of them. The upshot has been growing costs for the shipyards, mostly attributed to having to keep a skilled workforce in place even in the absence of contracts, industry experts say.
The debate has now resurfaced in the context of the Virginia-class fast attack submarine. As the design work winds down and the boats continue in production, shipbuilders are warning the Navy that without a new submarine on the drawing board within the next several years, experienced scientists and designers will retire or leave the industry.
The result would be higher costs and delays in production once a new program is launched, shipbuilders caution.
Though the next submarine program is not slated to start until 2019, design efforts typically commence several years in advance because the entire process often takes 15 to 17 years.
Historically, as one submarine class is completed and put into the water, designers and engineers on the program will roll right into the design process for its successor. But there is no new design underway for the first time since the Nautilus, the Navy’s first nuclear submarine, was commissioned in 1954.
In the United Kingdom, shipbuilders faced a six-year gap between the end of the Vanguard submarine program in the late 1980s and the beginning of the Astute program in the early 1990s. During that hiatus, the technical skills eroded so much that when construction began on the Astute, there were design problems, tremendous cost growth and schedule delays.
Engineering teams from Connecticut-based General Dynamics Electric Boat were dispatched to help bail them out. By 2005, the acquisition program was behind schedule by three years and over budget by $2 billion.
Concerned about its own industrial base, the U.S. Navy in 2005 asked Rand Corp. to assess the health of nuclear submarine design resources and the potential steps necessary to retain these skills.
“The Navy is committed to maintaining a nuclear submarine design capability,” wrote a spokesman for the Navy’s “Team Submarine” in response to questions from National Defense. “The Navy and program executive office submarines understand that a certain number of designers are critical because the skills needed for submarine design are unique and highly perishable.”
At the start of the study, the Navy’s 30-year shipbuilding plan showed that the next submarine class, the follow-on to the Ohio SSBN class, would begin in 2022. To design a submarine takes an average of 15 years, including the time from concept studies to delivery of the lead ship. For the Virginia class, that period was from 1988 to 2004.
Based upon that model, the design work for the next generation SSBN would have to commence by 2014.
But the Rand study found that extending the design period by another five years was an option that potentially could cut costs by 20 percent. For a design effort similar in scope to the Virginia class, the savings could be as high as $800 million, said John Schank, who led the Rand study.
“Our recommendation to the Navy was to consider starting the submarine program early,” he said at a congressional briefing. Instead of waiting until 2014 — the timeline suggested by Congress in 2005 — Rand proposed that the effort be moved up to 2009.
The Navy shifted the construction start date for the follow-on SSBN from 2022 to 2019 to meet operational requirements, officials said. By doing so, it reduced the time between whole-submarine design efforts.
“I think they have basically done what we have suggested,” Schank told National Defense. “By moving the authorization early, they have to move the start of the design early, so now if they have 2019 authorization, they’d have to start the design in 2011.”
But for the shipbuilders, the clock began ticking with the delivery of the first of class Virginia submarine in 2004.
“The gap is there now. The skills are going away, so the longer we wait, the harder it is, regardless of whether we can keep these folks employed on other projects or not,” said Charlie Butler, director of submarine engineering at shipbuilder Northrop Grumman, in Newport News, Va.
Kevin Poitras, vice president of engineering and design programs at General Dynamics Electric Boat, concurred. “It’s a serious challenge today. If you look at the cycle, we’re almost a generation off. Historically, we would’ve started another design in 2002,” he said. The company, which designed the Virginia-class submarine, is at a level of 3,000 designers and engineers, but the numbers will begin dropping off without additional work to keep them employed.
The Navy, cognizant of the situation, initiated a program to reduce the cost of the Virginia-class submarine from $2.2 billion to $2 billion in 2005 dollars. The goal was to allow the procurement of two ships per year beginning in 2012.
“We would have been right at the edge of the cliff if the Virginia design for affordability program hadn’t come up,” said Poitras.
The program, however, is a short-term fix for the preservation of intellectual property and critical skills in the workforce, said John D. Holmander, vice president and Virginia-class submarine program manager at Electric Boat.
So far, the company has eliminated $185 million in costs, with $15 million more to go.
Holmander credits the cost-cutting efforts in part to the experienced designers on the team, who drew upon their work on the previous class submarine to redesign the bow of the Virginia-class. They have taken 12 vertical launch tubes off the ship and replaced them with two larger payload tubes that are capable of launching missiles and other payloads. The bow, as a result, will cost $40 million less to build, he said.
“Typically, when things have changed from a design standpoint on previous shipbuilding programs, it has led to increased costs. This is a case where our engineering and design skills are going to lead to a lower cost. We’re really going against the paradigm that design changes cost money,” Holmander said.
Engineers at the company are taught to consider the affordability of their designs, but that knowledge comes from experience. “Once you lose that, you really put all future programs at risk,” he added.
The Virginia redesign program allowed Electric Boat to avert a loss of skilled workers, but only temporarily, said Poitras.
“That program added in sufficient design work to take us to the mid-to-late 2009 time period, at which time we would run into that critical area,” he said. “We do not have a long-range, clear path forward today. We have a bridge right now with Virginia. That gives us about 18 months.”
Poitras expressed concern about the demographics of the submarine workforce, which has aged. The average age of engineers is 44 and the average age of designers is 50. “Neither one is an issue today. But we could get to that state if we don’t have something major starting in another 18 months,” he cautioned.
If the Navy builds all 30 submarines currently planned for the Virginia class, it will end up spending $93 billion — including $5 billion for design work. A future submarine design could cost $2 billion more if the workforce is not kept in place after the Virginia program is completed, shipbuilders say.
The same issues would apply to the construction costs.
“The $2 billion in extra design costs is small compared to the construction problems that could cause the costs to balloon out of control,” Holmander said. “What I get concerned about is that the next submarine program could have a significant amount of inefficiency designed into it if you don’t keep a skilled and effective workforce in place.”
To prevent that from happening, the next design should be launched as soon as possible, he said. “There’s very little liability in starting a design early and getting it done.”
The Rand study found that starting the design early in 2009 would lead to savings over time.
“One of the advantages of starting early is that it allows you to approach it in a more controlled manner,” said Butler. “It allows you to perhaps develop your prototypes so that they’ll be a little more mature, so you enter an acquisition program with a little less risk. And this seems to be in line with the current thinking of the Navy, to control cost overruns on future programs.”
Electric Boat officials advocated the design start in 2009 to take advantage of the learning that engineers acquired during the Virginia redesign program. The company believes that the best way to design a ship is by pairing a new engineer with an experienced one. A later start date means there may be fewer experienced designers on the team available to mentor younger workers.
The consequences of eroding skills tend to manifest themselves many years down the road, Holmander said. For example, an inexperienced designer could make a mistake that is not discovered until late in the construction process.
“It’s very costly to recover from those types of problems,” he said.
Without a new submarine design to work on, both companies have turned to other projects to keep designers and engineers busy.
Along with the Virginia redesign program, Electric Boat engineers are supporting the DDG-1000 Zumwalt-class destroyer at General Dynamics’ Bath Iron Works, as well as programs at Sikorsky Aircraft and Northrop Grumman.
At Newport News, several thousand Northrop Grumman engineers and designers are working on the Navy’s new aircraft carrier, the CVN-21.
Once the carrier design is completed, the workers would be available to join the submarine program, said Becky Stewart, vice president of Northrop Grumman Newport News.
“In that regard, we’re in a fairly good position. However, we’re in danger, both at this company and Electric Boat of eroding those submarine-specific skills, by not having a design on the board,” she added.
“Without a program to exercise your design talent, it starts to atrophy and age and go away,” Butler said.
In the nascent days of the nuclear submarine, the Navy built eight one-of-a-kind ships.
“That was probably part of the Navy’s strategy to keep the submarine design and engineering workforce fresh, because they didn’t have a class they necessarily wanted to build, so they’d build the first of its class to keep that working brain trust,” said Stewart.
The Navy has funded some research and development efforts at both Electric Boat and Northrop Grumman to ascertain the relevant technologies that ought to be explored for a new submarine design, said Stewart. It is considered a low level of activity, but nonetheless, such projects will keep the imagination and skills of submarine designers and engineers alive and well, she added.
Beginning submarine design efforts before 2014 may not be a realistic option for the Navy, which is facing potential shipbuilding budget cuts in the years ahead. But the issue has generated interest from members of Congress who represent states in which large numbers of submarine design workers work and reside. They could garner support on Capitol Hill for an earlier start date.
“If we start in 2014, there’s nothing to say that Electric Boat and Newport News can’t still design submarines,” said Stewart. “But we’re talking about seven years of further erosion of time and skills.”
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