When the newest attack submarine returned Minnesota got back from sea trials in March 2013, the leaders around the submarine brassforce were giddy.
The Minnesota ship had done well and what’s more, the boat was being delivered well ahead of schedule and on budget: the Holy Grail for big defense acquisitions projects, like the $2.7 billion for each Virginia-class sub.
"The tenth ship of the Virginia-class, Minnesota is scheduled to be delivered approximately one year earlier than its contract delivery date," a Navy release read. "Starting in August of 2008 with USS New Hampshire (SSN 778), the last five boats have been delivered early, and all Virginia-class submarines currently under construction are scheduled to be delivered prior to their contract delivery dates."
But when inspectors discovered shoddy pipe fittings welded into a hard-to-access part of the steam propulsion system, all the extra time banked from early delivery was wiped out and then some. All the Suddenly, one of the Navy’s golden-child programs was facing delays and expensive, unplanned repairs because of a quality control problem that is now the focussubject of Justice Department-led investigation.
Experts who spoke to Navy Times said even the worst case scenario for these faulty parts — a ruptured pipe — wouldn’t be catastrophic for the crew. But What’s more concerning is the lost operational time for at least three brand new attack subs at a time that demand for them is mounting around the world. troubling is the loss in operational availability at a time when sub demand is peaking. Ultimately, the shoddy pipe fittings on three brand new attack boats could equate to years of lost operations.
The lousy fittings bedeviling Minnesota were also installed in subs John Warner and North Dakota, and officials say tell Navy Times that the repairs will "greatly expand" the work and length of time in packages for the other two post-shakedown overhauls for the other two, and will likely extend their time in the yards.
In February, former NATO commander retired Adm. James Stavridis told lawmakers that Russian undersea activity is about 70 percent to 80 percent of Cold War levels, and that more U.S. attack boats are needed to shadow them. for surveillance and tracking missions.
Adm. Harry Harris, head of U.S. Pacific Command, also told lawmakers in February that the Navy was only meeting providing about 62 percent of the requests he had made for attack submarine missions. attack boats he’s asking for and that more were needed.
"As far as Virginia-class submarines — it's the best thing we have," Harris told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "I can't get enough of them and I can't get enough of them fast enough."
Spokespeople for General Dynamics Electric Boat and Huntington Ingalls Industries declined to comment for this article, citing the ongoing investigation. Naval Sea Systems Command, which oversees submarine building, was unable to say whether faulty pipe joints have been found on more than three submarines.
From the start, Minnesota's early delivery seemed auspicious. The brass hailed shipbuilders and the plankowner crew in May 2013, after it completed sea trials.
"Minnesota's sea trials are a testament to the success of the Virginia-class program's ability to deliver high-quality and extremely capable boats early and on cost," said then-head of Submarine Group 2 Rear Adm. Ken Perry.
Perhaps the foremost impact from the shoddy parts will be the The real loss for the Navy is the loss of a sophisticated surveillance assets, one defense analyst said. said Loren Thompson, an analyst with the Arlington-based think tank Lexington Institute.
"The attack boat fleet, it's shrinking, and as a consequence, the Navy has to routinely decline missions for intel gathering and surveillance," said Loren Thompson, an analyst with the Arlington, Virginia-based think tank Lexington Institute. "It needs to be fixed correctly and fixed fast. The majority of mission days for attack submarines are dedicated to intelligence gathering and any slow-down in the transition of submarines from the yards to the active fleet is going to impact U.S. readiness around the globe."
The fact that the issue is impacting what has been the Navy's banner program is surprising, Thompson added.
"The Virginia-class is the Navy's most successful program," Thompson said. "I've followed complex technological systems and the things that can go wrong with them for most of my career. The Virginia-class to this point has been amazingly problem-free. And this may not turn out to be a huge problem in the end but with a program like the Virginia, any problem is going to get a lot of attention."