The U.S. Navy recently released an unclassified version of the investigation report into the 2021 collision of the nuclear submarine Connecticut. This report explains why the navy has already overhauled navigation training of officers and senior NCOs on nuclear subs as well as implementing more intense scrutiny of how well that training is done. This includes more frequent checks on how effective the training is over time.
The October 2021 Connecticut incident was the second American SSN (nuclear powered sub) to suffer such an accident (collision with a seamount) in the last fifteen years. The leadership of the Navy SSN force realized they had a serious problem. In mid-November 2021 the commander of subs based in the Pacific agreed that an emergency stand-down (halt in regular operations) to assess the state of navigation training among SSN crews was in order. At that time the Connecticut collision investigation was not yet complete but enough was known to attribute the collision to poor training and supervision of the officers and sailors who handle underwater navigation.
When the Connecticut collided with an underwater seamount, the damage was so severe that it had to surface immediately. The ballast tanks were damaged so the sub could not remain underwater. It was also feared that there might have been a radiation leak but none of the radiation monitoring sensors on the sub detected any. The navy has already relieved the captain of the Connecticut along with the executive officer (second in command), and the COB (Chief of the Boat, the senior NCO on the sub). These key personnel were relieved for poor navigation procedures and failure to train the crew to do it right. Now the submarine command wanted to find out the extent of the problem by similarly scrutinizing the status of navigation training and capabilities on all SSNs.
The first such collision occurred in 2006 and the reason was a lack of updated charts (nautical maps showing underwater obstacles) on all SSNs in 2006. That was thought to be remedied after the 2006 collision and all ships are supposed to have the electronic charts that are part of the new VMS (Voyage Management System) that not only uses electronic copies of charts, but quickly updates charts when new underwater obstacles are detected. This is done via space satellites or various seagoing data collection systems. In 2016 the navy installed a new VMS system (version 9.3) in American SSNs and it was eventually discovered that this was not an issue with the Connecticut. Crews are given initial training on these new systems before they depart on a cruise. The two senior officers, and especially the COB, are responsible for ensuring that all sailors involved with navigation are properly trained to handle the VMS and the new charts. By the end of 2021 the navy admitted that the damage was extensive and Congress agreed to provide $50 million for replacement components that must be manufactured, a process that could take months or longer. It is still unclear if the damage done is so extensive and expensive to fix that the navy budget might not be able to handle it. That could force the navy to retire the Connecticut.
The earlier collision of the USS San Francisco caused similar damage but was cheaper ($80 million) and easier to fix because the San Francisco was a Los Angeles class sub and many of those were being retired because of age. The San Francisco was not due to retire until 2017 because it had recently undergone a $170 million refueling and refurbishment. The navy did the math and realized that another Los Angeles class sub, four years younger than the San Francisco, was about to undergo a similar refurbishment. It was cheaper and faster to remove the forward portion of the younger sub and use it to replace the damaged portion of the San Francisco.
This approach would not work with the Connecticut because it is a Seawolf class sub and there are only three of those. The Connecticut entered service in 1998 and was expected to remain in service into the 2030s. The Seawolfs are larger and more capable than the Los Angeles class but too expensive to build in large quantities, so only three were built Many of the innovations found on the Seawolfs were transferred to the smaller, more affordable Virginia class. This was a success and 66 are planned with 22 already in service.
The three Seawolfs were kept in service because they were already paid for and turned out to be quite effective. The new tech that made that possible was now tested and it made the smaller Virginias much more effective, and not much more expensive than the Los Angeles class boats the Seawolfs were originally supposed to replace.
The Seawolfs themselves were another example of poor navy leadership in the key area of developing and building new ships. The Seawolfs were the first of a series of similar disasters that included the Zumwalt destroyers and the LCS frigates. Spending a lot of money to save the Connecticut is not something the navy can afford anymore. The only exception is the third Seawolf, USS Jimmy Carter, which was heavily modified to become a longer, heavier and unique intelligence collection sub. The Carter, which entered service in 2005, was a success in performing unique intel missions. The other two Seawolfs are not unique and useful, which makes them more likely to be retired early id unexpected and expensive-to-fix problems arise. This is what the navy is doing with many recently built but flawed LCS class ships. The Connecticut now has a very expensive hardware problem and, like the LCS ships. is in danger of just being retired because of cost considerations.
Despite the greater capabilities of the Seawolf, the Connecticut collision demonstrated that crew quality is still a major factor. As much as the navy would hate to lose a Seawolf, the demise of the Connecticut makes it clear that crew quality is even more important and is not something you can build into a new ship. Crew quality is easier to misplace than ship quality and cost, because the hardware cost is easier to demonstrate and justify. Let us hope that the loss of the USS Connecticut was not in vain.