The U.S. Navy maintained a sullen silence as the broken Seawolf class attack submarine USS Connecticut (SSN-22) crept into Puget Sound earlier this week, offloading munitions at Naval Magazine Indian Head. Instead, harbor photographers and Congress are giving taxpayers the first insights into the damage inflicted on the submarine during a catastrophic October 2 collision with the sea floor. But Congress isn’t telling too much. Buried deep in the National Defense Authorization Act, two lines—crafted to prevent easy searching—authorize the Navy to receive an initial tranche of $60 million in repair funds—$10 million for a “spare Seawolf class bow dome” (page 1815) and $50 million for “USS Connecticut emergent repairs” (page 1850).
The $60 million in “long-lead time materials” funding is an indication that the USS Connecticut’s final repair bill will be quite high. Congress’s quiet action is inexplicable. While most consider repairs to the multi-billion-dollar USS Connecticut a foregone conclusion, it is far smarter for Congress to force the Navy to make a public case for the additional funds, presenting some alternatives and a few top-level cost estimates for each path forward before committing taxpayer money.
Debate is necessary. Money is short, America is at a strategic crossroads, and China’s Navy looms in the distance. Both taxpayers and policymakers need to know what the Navy is doing. And, at a minimum, the U.S. Government needs more practice in setting expectations and supervising projects; even in the best of times, the U.S. Navy has had trouble crafting realistic estimates, and, once Congress opens the money spigot, it won’t turn it off.
Getting the Navy to go “on record” before Congress is the first step in keeping the sea service accountable.
Of late, the Navy is refusing to have any tough discussions in public. This must change. At a minimum, an open discussion of the USS Connecticut’s fate forces the Navy to prioritize various projects, determining if resources evidently needed repair the USS Connecticut are more important than, say, using those funds to repair broken Freedom class Littoral Combat Ships, speed along Constellation class (FFG-62) frigate procurement, or boost next-generation attack submarine design work.
These are healthy conversations to have. America’s Navy is in stormy seas, rocks are dead ahead, and nobody wants to discuss the navigation plan. And by authorizing additional funds, Congress is abdicating their responsibilities and letting the Navy sail blindly onward into a hazard.
As Congress rushes to pour hundreds of millions into a wounded middle-aged sub, some Congressional observers must realize that the Connecticut’s repairs will take years to complete. It may not be worth the expense; the service lives of nuclear submarines are tied, in large part, to the lifespan of the boat’s nuclear reactor. Any extra work to get the Connecticut back “on the line” in the South China Sea will not add many more service years to the 23-year-old submarine. The sub is old and the clock is ticking.
Given all the Navy’s other pressing priorities, spending hundreds of millions to get a mere dozen more years out of the broken Connecticut may not be in the national interest.
At a minimum, the Navy needs to tell taxpayers the expected cost of the repairs. But, given the Navy’s poor estimating skills, few Admirals are eager to publicly proffer a realistic cost target. In 2005, the last time the Navy ran a submarine into a mountain, the sub needed four years of work and the repairs cost America $134 million—almost twice the Navy’s original $79 million estimate.
That’s not the worst of it. Connecticut’s repairs may disrupt other critical portions of America’s fragile submarine industrial base. Take submarine bow domes. In 2014, the Navy awarded Seemann Composites, LLC, a relatively small and specialized company from Gulfport, Mississippi, a contract to develop a program-plan for developing and building a substitute Seawolf class submarine bow dome. This makes Seemann Composites the likely supplier of any replacement bow dome for the Connecticut.
But Seemann Composites is already under contract to build key parts for the Columbia class ballistic missile submarine—the Navy’s number one procurement priority—as well as parts of certain Virginia class submarines and unmanned vehicles. How will Seemann Composites—which spent 2016 to 2018 building facilities to support production of the Columbia class bow domes—handle an emergent requirement to re-engineer for a new “one-off” bow dome while managing their critical work on the Columbia class. And who in the Navy will adjudicate the unbendable Columbia class production schedule with the need to get a single Seawolf bow dome completed? These are all things Congress must help the Navy figure out before checks start leaving the U.S. Treasury.
Finally, repairing the USS Connecticut will push aside other critical projects at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard for years. Does the military value of all the displaced projects outweigh a decade or so of service clawed back from a damaged attack submarine, albeit a unique one? And if the emergent work on the Connecticut pushes the public shipyards into further disarray, will private yards take up the slack, further defunding America’s private shipyards?
Nobody is thinking about these things. Congress is just blindly authorizing writing checks to fix a sub that will decommission two decades from now—no matter what the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard does to fix the sub’s present damage.
Time For Department of Defense Leadership To Step Up?
While Congress’ quick work in authorizing money for the Connecticut is welcome, the Navy’s continued silence on the hurt sub is unhealthy. If the Navy is simply unable to openly discuss work prioritization and other basic industrial base issues, then it is rusting out from within, lacking the confidence to navigate the stormy waters ahead.
Somebody needs to step up. If Navy leaders are too timid to publicly justify the plan for the USS Connecticut now, no Navy leader will demand accountability for the rehab project—or anything else—later.
At the highest levels of the Navy, accountability is in desperately short supply. And if Navy leadership refuses to take the first hesitant steps towards accountability with the USS Connecticut repair bill, publicly grappling with the basic challenges detailed above, then Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin or some other Department of Defense official will gladly fill the Navy’s leadership vacuum—and not give it back.