According to Navy budget documents, the Seawolf class submarine, USS Connecticut (SSN-22), had, in early 2020, been expected to enter Puget Sound Naval Shipyard for a year-long “Drydocking Selected Restricted Availability,” or DSRA, in August 2021. But, in mid 2020, the U.S. Navy reversed itself, beginning the formal process of cancelling the submarine’s big 2021 maintenance period.
By May 2021, when the Navy’s FY 2022 budget proposal was released, the USS Connecticut’s planned 2021 shipyard maintenance period had been pushed back to at least October 2022, and the submarine was, instead, sent out on a fateful—and now potentially final—deployment to the South China Sea.
U.S. Navy Commander Cindy Fields, Force Public Affairs Officer for the Commander Submarine Force, Pacific Fleet, said that while “specific details of submarine maintenance schedules are classified,” she confirmed the USS Connecticut’s “DSRAs for Fiscal Year 2021 and Fiscal Year 2026 were reprogrammed to a 21.3-month EDSRA (Extended Drydocking Selected Restricted Availability) during the POM22 (Program Objective Memorandum 2022) process and moved to Fiscal Year 2023.”
Fiscal year 2023 begins almost a year from now, but with a precious Puget Sound Naval Shipyard dry-dock already reserved for more than 21 months, the path forward for the USS Connecticut—if the Department of Defense decides to keep the stricken submarine, is becoming clearer. However, as it seems likely that the USS Connecticut’s repair work will extend beyond 21 months, the dynamics that drove the doomed submarine forward will be replayed as too many Navy ships and boats jostle for a limited number of dry docks.
Juggling the demands of fleet maintenance is a hard task. To manage the challenge, the Navy needs to better understand how ship captains, shipyard managers and higher-level tastemakers influence class maintenance plans and how those choices may then influence operations and subsequent risk management. The Navy can start by looking at the USS Connecticut. Did the decision to push back the submarine’s maintenance period contribute to the avoidable October 2 mishap, where the USS Connecticut suffered a controlled impact into undersea terrain?
Sub Fleet Maintenance: Needs Under Pressure:
Had the Navy maintained the schedule first proposed in early 2020, the now-stricken USS Connecticut would have been safe in a Navy Yard dry dock, two months into a complex year-long refit, or DSRA.
A Seawolf class DSRA, according to a General Dynamics Electric Boat
It is unclear if any of the work in the planned DSRA would have added navigational aids, sensors or other systems that might have helped aid crew situational awareness, preventing the early-October mishap. Though the exact improvements are classified, Naval Sea Systems Command has previously identified some nineteen major modernization projects for attack submarines, including propulsor upgrades, combat control system upgrades, sonar array and imaging improvements as well as other communications and engineering changes.
To the Navy’s credit, outside of the rescheduled DSRA, USS Connecticut has received regular maintenance. In January 2018, the submarine completed a 56-day continuous maintenance availability on the sub, and, in September 2019, workers at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard put the finishing touches on 30,200 worker-days of labor to complete a 5.5 month docking continuous maintenance availability.
While DSRAs can be canceled or rescheduled to reflect the actual maintenance needs of the craft, planning for the USS Connecticut’s 2021 DSRA—and the DSRA’s expected 149,667 shipyard worker-days—began sometime after the 2018 shipyard visit, suggesting that the Navy had determined the boat needed deeper maintenance. It was understandable, particularly given that the two other Seawolf class boats, in earlier availabilities, had needed months—even years of additional work to be ready for sea.
Navy investigators should determine why, specifically, the USS Connecticut’s DSRA cancelled. What did the 2019 shipyard visit leave undone?
A Tough Maintenance Period Nobody Wanted:
By mid-2020, as the Navy made decisions on the USS Connecticut’s future refit schedule, Puget Sound Naval Shipyard was full. COVID-19 had arrived, a variety of challenging projects were running behind schedule, and ships and boats were jostling for shipyard time. Making matters worse, America’s public shipyards were under serious scrutiny by Congress and other overseers. The Navy, pressured to fix things at the public shipyards, fired the head of Norfolk Naval Shipyard in September 2020, and chose to push forward on lower-risk projects that would help the shipyards show better performance trends.
In that type of hyper-critical environment, a Seawolf class DSRA was not something the Navy could want. The Navy had already encountered real difficulties in estimating the time and amount of work required for Seawolf class refits. Navy budget documents show that the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard had already conducted two major maintenance availabilities on Seawolf Class submarines that went far behind schedule. By 2020, a planned 18-month extended DSRA on the USS Jimmy Carter (SSN 23) had taken ten months longer than originally scheduled, with labor “man-days” going from an estimated 284,853 to a hefty 525,072. Earlier, a planned 10-month DSRA on the USS Seawolf (SSN 21) became a three-year saga, where an original estimate of 114,722 labor days grew into 400,997 labor days.
Rather than have the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard pivot directly from the USS Jimmy Carter DSRA at the end of 2020 to the USS Connecticut DSRA, the Navy, instead, chose to use the Seawolf-certified drydock for a dual inactivation of two Los Angeles class submarines, the recently decommissioned ex-USS Louisville (SSN 724) and ex-USS Olympia (SSN 717).
While submarine inactivation and recycling work does little to unlock “lethality” for the fleet, inactivation projects are relatively well-understood tasks that are often completed on time and on-budget—something that the Navy, after facing shipyard performance criticism in 2020, really needed to help boost their public shipyard maintenance records.
A Captain Who Spent Time Out Of The Yard:
The previous Commander of the USS Connecticut, Cameron Aljilani, was also likely uneager to spend time in the shipyard. Subs marooned in a shipyard rarely receive career-enhancing citations, and the USS Connecticut paled in contrast to the other two swashbuckling Seawolf class subs. While the secretive USS Jimmy Carter won a rare Presidential Unit Citation in 2013 and the USS Seawolf earned the coveted Arleigh Burke Fleet Trophy in 2021, awarded annually to the two most improved fleet vessels in tactical and operational performance, the USS Connecticut had only won a few Battle Effectiveness Awards (Battle “E’s”) and Meritorious Unit Commendations.
As a naval officer, Mr. Aljilani’s professional record favored action. He had a rough start; Aljilani’s LinkedIn profile shows that, in prior service, he arrived aboard the USS Buffalo (SSN-715) just in time to see his new commander fired. But over the next few years, he helped rebuild the hapless sub’s reputation, helping the submarine win two Battle “E’s” as well as an Arleigh Burke Fleet Trophy. Later, as an Executive Officer aboard the USS North Dakota, (SSN 784), he employed “the Navy’s first UUVs (Unmanned Underwater Vehicles) from a deployed submarine.”
Aljilani reported aboard the USS Connecticut as the prospective Commanding Officer in January 2019, spending most of his half-year training period aboard, prepping for a shipyard refit. After assuming command in September 2019, the USS Connecticut left the yard, headed towards a very busy two-year cycle of near-constant training cruises and deployments.
By avoiding a 2021 DSRA, Aljilani would have likely ended his command tour without having to endure the indignities of a major yard period. Instead, both Aljilani’s career and his crew ended up on the rocks. Investigators should strive to understand how the sub captain influenced the ship, and how the sub’s operational schedule shift influenced crew selection and subsequent performance.
Time To Do Some More Investigating:
While the grounding of the USS Connecticut (SSN-22), was directly attributed to an avoidable mistake, the incident may also be tied to the U.S. Navy’s desperate shortage of ship repair capabilities. Though the initial command investigation into the mishap is complete, it is important for the Department of Defense to take a closer look, determining if the array of maintenance decisions by ship commanders, shipyard bosses and big Navy played a part in the October 2 debacle.
Demand for Navy vessels is only going to increase. And, as the Navy defers more maintenance and juggles more schedules, risk will increase. The trick, over the coming years, will be to not lose more vessels because if it.