America's nuclear-powered fast-attack submarines are experiencing maintenance bottlenecks as specific components are wearing out decades earlier due to faulty manufacturing. The lack of spare parts has resulted in the Navy cannibalizing submarines in construction so its Virginia-class subs can remain in a state of readiness.
Bloomberg, citing a new Naval Sea Systems Command and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report, says spare parts for the Virginia class, also known as the SSN-774 class, are lacking and has forced shipyards to "borrow or "cannibalize" parts from newly built subs.
The good news is that Congress has pushed the Navy to increase construction rates for Virginia class subs from two per year to three. The service declined to define which parts are affected but noted they're for non-propulsion electronic systems.
The number of swapped parts has increased over the years - many of the parts are for the submarines which entered service in 2004. By 2013, at least 100 parts were swapped from new subs to older ones. By 2013 that number grew to 171, then 201 in 2018, 452 in 2019, and then declined to 218 in 2020. Expectations this year are around 82.
Bryan Clark, a former special assistant to the chief of naval operations, said the parts problem is a significant readiness issue "that goes with the overall concern that the Navy is not investing enough in maintenance, supply chains, and shipyard infrastructure."
Clark, who is now a naval analyst with the Hudson Institute, said, "the Navy may have been too slow to act on indications that some components were wearing out faster."
Part swapping has led to delays in the delivery of new subs. The CBO said cannibalizing parts from newly built subs for an older one creates an extra workload for shipyards. Another problem is the parts being swapped could be damaged during transition.
Naval officials are "not satisfied with any material cannibalization that limits our submarine fleet's ability to respond to national tasking and is taking all steps necessary to avoid these scenarios," the Naval Sea Systems Command said in a statement. To mitigate part swapping, the service has ramped up ordering parts earlier to "reduce material work stoppages and maintenance delays awaiting components."
About 70% of the part swaps were for subs that entered service in 2004 and 2008.
The Navy blames contractors who manufactured parts that were out of specification "contribute to a small percentage" of premature parts wear.
The subs are designed by Virginia-based General Dynamics, who told Bloomberg:
"We work closely with the Navy to help it address any unanticipated issues with parts, to include initiatives to design improvements that can be applied to future boats."
Brent Sadler, a naval fellow at the Heritage Foundation and also served multiple tours on nuclear-powered subs, said his "assessment is that operational assumptions were off in the design." He added, "suppliers may have made modifications to the materials after design without considering" potential corrosion that "resulted in rapid failure of specific parts."
It's "not clear what steps Navy has taken to address the root cause of this situation, which to me is the most important aspect of this," said Sadler.
Virginia-class submarines will remain in service until 2060, but in the first 17 years since the first sub went into service, design flaws have already resulted in significant headaches for the Navy.
We reported last year the stealth coating of at least one Virginia-class submarine has a "stealth problem."