ARLINGTON, Va. — The U.S. Navy has nearly twice as many submarines sidelined for maintenance than it should, and those boats in maintenance ultimately require three times more unplanned work than they should, the program executive officer for attacks subs has said.
But the service thinks it can turn these and other problematic statistics around by changing when and how it funds submarine maintenance. In fact, Rear Adm. Jon Rucker said he thinks the Navy can implement industry best practices starting in fiscal 2026 and, by the end of that fiscal year, get to almost zero delay days.
Several aspects of submarine maintenance preparation are awry, setting up the boats for poor outcomes, Rucker said this month at the Naval Submarine League’s annual conference.
On the planning side, engineers aren’t sticking to milestones that lock the work package at a certain point; instead, they continue to jam in more work, which throws off assumptions about the materials to order and the availability of skilled labor.
Because of the addition of extra work once the maintenance availability starts, coupled with unexpected problems that arise, Rucker said 30% of the total work on submarines is unplanned, compared to an industry best practice of 10%.
The Navy has set a goal to get to 10% unplanned work by FY26, and much of that improvement will come from discipline in the planning process.
When it comes to ordering materials, Rucker said, the Navy isn’t funding these at the right amount or at the right time.
For starters, he explained, the Navy only funds 40% to 50% of materials ahead of the start of a maintenance availability; the remaining amount is ordered after the availability starts and workers can get a closer look at the insides of the boat. Much of this material is considered “contingent” — the Navy will not order it until workers see that the condition of the submarine requires certain work be done and therefore materials to be ordered.
The problem is that almost every single boat requires all the same contingent work, Rucker said, meaning it would be better to assume up front the work will be done and the parts are required. “We’re going to buy the material anyway; we just buy it late” under the current system, he explained.
By fiscal 2026, he said, the Navy will aim to have 90% to 95% of total material on hand when an availability starts, rather than today’s 40% to 50% figure. This issue of buying materials earlier is made all the more dire by the increasing delivery times of many materials.
Rucker told reporters after his speech at the conference that the Navy used to get away with later material orders for two reasons: The older Los Angeles-class attack boats had a more plentiful inventory of spare parts on hand due to investments when that submarine class was in construction, and because parts not already on hand could typically be delivered within two to 12 months.
Today, the Navy has few spares on hand for the newer Virginia-class boats. And when items like large pumps and valves are unexpectedly needed, it can take as long as three years to get them made and delivered.
“We have to phase the money differently. Our model’s broken because it was built on an assumption of the way things were 20 or 30 years ago, when we had three times the suppliers [in the industrial base], a very mature class” with plenty of spares on hand, he said.
“But the model doesn’t support the fact that we have longer leads, fewer suppliers; it takes more time, and we didn’t buy all the stuff we needed to. We’re going to adjust the way we buy things,” he added.
He made clear the Navy isn’t asking to buy materials “early,” but rather on a new timeline that better reflects long delivery times and the imperative to have 90% to 95% of the material on hand at the start of work.
Rucker said the submarine community decided on these changes too late to modify the FY23 funding request. He’s working to get them implemented in the FY24 budget request, which is to be released in the spring. If the Navy can properly phase its spending on materials for submarine repair work, it will give industry a more predictable workload, ensure more materials are on hand at the start of a repair project and reduce a major barrier to submarines coming out of maintenance on schedule.
Overall, Rucker explained in his speech, the Navy has gone from nearly 1,600 delay days of maintenance for attack submarines in FY19 to 1,100 delay days in FY22, which ended Sept. 30.
Late materials alone account for more than 100 of those days, Rucker said.
His office projects that figure will come down to about 700 delay days by FY26 based on changes already implemented — and Rucker said that better planning and earlier materials purchased will get the community to as close to zero as possible by the end of FY26, assuming the changes are implemented this next budget cycle.
This drive to zero delay days comes in the context of an undersized attack submarine force that’s kept busy. Navy and Pentagon leadership repeatedly call the submarine force among America’s top advantages over adversaries like China and Russia; yet the U.S. has 50 attack submarines and four related “large payload submarines,” compared to a requirement for a combined 66 to 72 attack and large payload subs.
Of the 50 attack subs, Rucker said 18 are in maintenance or waiting for their turn. Industry best practice would call for just 20% to be tied up in repairs, or 10 boats instead of 18.
The Navy in 2010 decided to put the submarines through fewer but longer maintenance availabilities, allowing the boats to have longer operational cycles. But Rucker said this new model — when all the delays are taken into account — means a sub going into maintenance is out of the fleet for an average of 450 to 700 days, depending on the class, at a time when operational commanders are itching for all the submarine presence they can get.
To help overcome the backlog of maintenance work faster, construction yards Newport News Shipbuilding and General Dynamics Electric Boat are helping with some repairs of Los Angeles-class subs. The former has Columbus, and the latter was awarded a contract over the summer for repairs on Hartford.
Boise, the poster child for submarine maintenance woes — it returned from its last deployment in January 2015 and has been waiting to get into maintenance since fiscal 2016, losing its certification to dive amid the delays — is expected to go into maintenance at Newport News. But Rucker said a final decision on its funding would be revealed in the FY24 budget request, and he would not comment further on plans for that boat.
Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.