Despite the priority the U.S. Navy has attached to its nuclear sub program, and the recent success in producing new Virginia class subs on time and under budget, that is changing. In part it is because of covid19, which slowed down shipyard activity and made it more difficult to hire new workers.
This was in addition to problems that have wrecked so many other American warship building programs and are now spreading to the nuclear sub construction effort. The most urgent problem is the management of the two commercial shipyards that build nuclear subs. Even before covid19 there were increasing problems with quality control, which means faulty work has to be done over and that means more delays. The navy, to its credit, has been paying attention and has caught most flawed work. This is due to the still vivid memory of two SSNs (nuclear attack subs) that were lost in the 1960s because of construction flaws. Ever since then the navy has paid particular attention to quality control and has caught bad habits reappearing several times and put an end to it. This time around there is another problem; many of the experienced shipyard workers are retiring and, because of a nationwide shortage of skilled workers, it is difficult to find and attract qualified workers to replace the retired ones and maintain the rapid pace of constructing new subs. This is further complicated by the need to build new Columbia class SSBNs (nuclear powered ballistic missile subs) to replace the elderly Ohio class boats. The first of the new Columbias must be ready for service by 2031, and keep coming on a regular basis, to replace the retiring Ohios.
The Navy is spending a lot of money on its new subs. The Navy put its 17th Virginia class SSN into service during 2020. That sub, the South Dakota (SSN 790) took three years to build and is the seventh of eight Block 3 Virginias. Ten years earlier the navy got its fifth Virginia eight months ahead of schedule and under budget. At that point, the Virginias were taking 5-6 years to build and arriving at the rate of one a year. Over the last five years, the speed of construction has increased as well as the rate of delivery, now one or two a year, in order to replace the aging Los Angeles class boats. In one recent 25-month period, five Virginias were put into service. Covid19 halted the ability to build Virginias at the rate of two a year. Finally, the next batch of Virginias are 30 percent larger than the previous ones because they will have 40 launch tubes for cruise missiles. This is about three times as many cruise missile tubes as the previous Virginias. That means even more skilled workers are needed for the larger Virginias.
The Columbias are similar to the Ohios they are replacing but are designed to be less expensive to operate and offer more comfortable accommodations for the crews. This will be done by incorporating much of the technology found in the Virginias. The cost of developing and building the twelve Columbias will be about $128 billion. About half of that is for development and the rest (about $6 billion each) for building the new SSBN. Construction is supposed to start in the early 2020s. This will be delayed because of covid19 and a shortage of qualified new hires. One of the problems seems to be that a lot of potential hires from other parts of the country prefer to avoid an outdoor job in chilly New England, especially when they have offers from areas with better outdoor work conditions.
One solution for all this is to reopen the Avondale shipyard in Louisiana. This yard ceased building warships in 2014 and has since kept the lights on by building oil industry equipment. Avondale is on the Mississippi 30 kilometers north of New Orleans. In the 1980s Avondale had 26,000 workers and was a major producer of military ships. The need for that disappeared in 1991 with the end of the Cold War. The navy needed much less shipyard capacity and all submarine construction ended up in two New England yards.
The Navy currently plans to build 66 Virginias with ten currently under construction and 17 in service. Blocks 1-4 of Virginia are all armed the same way but Block 5 (arriving in the early 2020s) will have additional space to store and launch missiles and will carry 65 missiles and torpedoes. This is 75 percent more than Block 1-4 boats. This will be accomplished by adding an additional section called the VPM or Virginia Payload Module. This adds 25.6 meters to the length of the sub and increases displacement to 10,400 tons. Each new Block gets better electronics and sensors and it is believed that the passive sonar in the late model Virginias have much longer and accurate detection ranges. The Block 5 will also receive a large number of equipment upgrades. The main problem with the Virginias is the larger size and the shortage of shipyard capacity to build them and the Columbias.
Solutions are being sought but few practical ones are in sight.