ARLINGTON, Va. — “It’s counterintuitive,” the head of U.S. submarine forces acknowledges, but the Navy’s ballistic missile submarine force is spending more time operating at sea while also seeing better material readiness rates.
The trend is encouraging, submarine leaders say, because an upcoming dip in the size of the fleet will mean these SSBNs will have to stay at sea longer and spend less time in maintenance, or risk not meeting national nuclear deterrence requirements.
U.S. Strategic Command requires that 10 SSBNs be available at any given time. The fleet has 14 boats today but will soon drop to just 10 and then only bounce back up to 12 as the current Ohio-class SSBNs reach the end of their planned service life and the new Columbia-class boats come online.
When the fleet stabilizes at 12 boats, it will only be able to afford having two vessels in maintenance at any given time, compared to the four that are often offline for maintenance today.
Vice Adm. William Houston, the commander of naval submarine forces, is conducting something of a dry run now — and he said it’s going well, with the fleet at “a higher [operating tempo] than we have historically been … while actually improving material readiness across the force.”
Houston told Defense News at the Naval Submarine League annual symposium here that he started the effort by basically forcing more ships to go to sea: he only allowed two to be in port, enabling 2,000 workers to focus on just two maintenance availabilities instead of spreading themselves thin trying to manage four.
What he found was that the teams performed better maintenance, and faster, when they were allowed to focus their efforts on fewer boats. As a result, the boats coming out of maintenance were in better material condition than they had been in the past.
This is in contrast to past Navy examples of increasing the operating tempo of certain platforms — amphibious ships and aircraft carriers in particular — to keep up with combatant commander requirements, but then seeing the material condition of these ships plummet when the repair yards couldn’t keep up with the subsequent increase in maintenance demands.
The Navy is in a precarious position with its SSBN fleet. Even in the best-case scenario where the new Columbia-class boats meet their construction and testing schedules and can go on their maiden deployments on time, the Navy will still find itself with just 10 boats in the inventory and having to keep them all operationally available all the time.
Rear Adm. Scott Pappano, the Program Executive Officer for Strategic Submarines, said this prospect makes the Navy uncomfortable, and so the service is considering putting up to five Ohio-class SSBNs into an 18-month maintenance availability that give them three more years of service life. The first of these life extensions could take place in fiscal 2029 with submarine Alaska, helping create a little extra margin during the Ohio-to-Columbia transition years.
Though the Navy is carefully monitoring the Ohio class to ensure the boats’ remaining service life isn’t consumed too quickly, Pappano told Defense News at the symposium that this situation is a wash: Houston is using the boats more, but he’s keeping them in better material condition.
Pappano said his office would continue to track this over the coming years to make sure the higher operational tempo today wouldn’t hurt the boats’ ability to make it to the end of their planned life, but he said he sees no reason now to be concerned.
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.