Run Silent, Run Scared: ‘A Crucial Year’ For Navy’s New Nuke Sub
October 23, 3014
FAIRFAX, Va. - “No one should be sleeping comfortably at night,” Rear Adm. Dave Johnson warned Navy submariners and contractors today. For the fleet’s top priority program, the replacement for the aging Ohio-class nuclear missile submarine, fiscal 2015 “is a crucial year,” the Program Executive Officer for all submarine programs said this morning.
“If we in this room don’t have butterflies in our stomachs each day… we’re kidding ourselves,” said Adm. John Richardson, who as head of Naval Nuclear Propulsion Systems, aka Naval Reactors, is responsible for the most complex (and literally radioactive) component of the new sub. “I just don’t want anybody to relax a moment,” he told the Naval Submarine League conference here. “I’ve got to admit I see all the ingredients for failure, and I’ll tell you why[:] The program is on track, [but saying] ‘green’ as opposed to ‘yellow’ or ‘red’ [is] too optimistic, and it gives rise potentially to a complacency that’s poisonous.”
No less a figure than the Chief of Naval Operations, a submariner himself, said he had hard work ahead to sell the expensive program on Capitol Hill. Outside the New England delegation, for whom submarine-builder Electric Boat is a major employer, “we don’t have [enough] people who are our advocates that will say, ‘Listen, we’ve got to get this thing going,’” Adm. Jonathan Greenert said. “So I’ve got some work when they reconvene, I’ve got some folks that are helping me gather some members together.”
The CNO’s chief aide for undersea warfare (aka OPNAV N97), Rear Adm. Joe Tofalo, told attendees they should “get that word out, and I am committed to help you do that. If anybody needs help in strategic messaging, then you call 1-800-N97 and let us know…. if you need trifolds, priority briefs, talking points to your Congressman, whatever.”
So far, the Navy and a sympathetic Secretary of Defense have protected the Ohio Replacement Program from congressional vicissitudes. Even though the Hill has, as has become usual, passed a Continuing Resolution to keep the government running at last year’s spending levels until it decides to abandon its most important Constitutional function and pass appropriations bills for 2015, the Ohio program has been able to keep stepping up its activity.
“The Navy has been very good at supporting the cash flow requirements for the Ohio replacement, so we have the funding necessary to award the missile tubes [contract] next week” — the first major component of the sub to move from design to physical reality — “and keep up with the pace of design,” Johnson said. “[ORP program manager] Jack Evans is the master, and we’ve been able to convince the Pentagon we need to keep funding this thing despite the Continuing Resolution.”
Design work alone has already more than doubled from 2013 to 2014, Johnson said, and it’s just going to keep accelerating. The Navy’s ambitious goal is to complete more than 80 percent of the detailed three-dimensional blueprints before construction begins in 2021.
“We have to achieve a better than 80 percent design-complete because we have to build this thing in 84 months, two months shorter than the Virginia, and we have to deliver this thing in the water by 2028,” Johnson said. “That leaves us three years, a mere three years, to test, certify, do post-shakedown availability, get it to King’s Bay, load it out, and have it on patrol by 2031.”
That will be hard to achieve even with full and uninterrupted funding, which remains in question. “We have a general commitment, a lot of folks saying we’ll figure out a way to get this done — but we haven’t figured out exactly how yet,” said Richardson. Any hiccup in funding can cause further delays the Navy can’t afford: “There is no slack in that schedule.”
There’s no slack because the current Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines will reach the ragged end of their service life in the 2030s. Originally designed to serve 30 years, the Ohios are being extended to 42 to give the replacement program time. The Navy’s confident it can get to 42 — but no further. “There is no margin left,” said Rear Adm. Phil Sawyer, commander of Pacific submarine forces. “42 years is it.”
2031 is not far away considering the sheer complexity of the Ohio Replacement Program. The Navy needs to bring together the hull, based on the existing Virginia class but scaled up and with many new components; the nuclear reactor and propulsion system, Richardson’s responsibility at Naval Reactors, which is funded through the Energy Department; and a Common Missile Compartment (what those tubes are for) which will also be part of the Royal Navy’s new missile submarines.
“We have two nations, the United Kingdom and the United States, sort of lashed at the hip on a critical part of this program. We have at least two departments, the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy, that have to stay synchronized to fund this,” said Richardson. “Lots of budget lines, lots of complexity…It’s like watching six buses moving down the highway, staying in formation, constantly staying even, and trying to paint those buses simultaneously as they go.”
So, I kept asking speakers at the Submarine League conference, who herds all these high-ranking cats? After other officials gave ambiguous answers, OPNAV 97's Tofalo took me on preemptively:
“The first question I want to answer, since I know Sydney’s going to get to me anyway, is ORP oversight,” Tofalo said. “I want to make sure you clearly understand there is a very, very rigorous ORP oversight process, with a flag oversight board chaired by Adm. Johnson” and comprising Tofalo himself, new program manager Jack Evans, Naval Reactor’s Karen Henneberger, and VIce Adm. Terry Benedict, who runs the Navy’s nuclear missile program. “This group meets every Thursday.”
As chairman, PEO-Subs Johnson “is the whip cracker,” Tofalo said. “You asked who cracks the whip. I think Mr. Mulherin and Mr. Geiger, the two presidents of the two shipbuilding companies, can show you their lashes.”