Virginia Class Subs: A rosy shipbuilding story…or was is all a dream?

by Craig Hooper on July 7, 2010

For years, the Virginia Class has been portrayed as a shipbuilding success story. The subs have been, for years, touted as a model program–one that got the “Submarine Production Procurement Price” down and delivered needed boats to the fleet, are the efficiency chickens coming home to roost?

A June 30 memo from J. Michael Gilmore, Director of Operational Test and Evaluation, makes me wonder. In the memo, Mr. Gilmore says that a 2009 Program Support Review found:

  • Multiple “fail to sail” issues, and test aborts associated with low reliability;
  • No enterprise wide reliability measurement or growth program;
  • Multiple subsystem failures associated with low reliability: AN/TB-29 Towed Array, Imaging / photonics mast, AN/BPS-16 radar, AN/WLY-l sensors, Total Ship Monitoring System, Vertical Launch System tubes;
  • Additional subsystems require reliability improvements (Active Shaft Grounding System, Circuit D, Ship Service Turbine Generator magnetic levitation bearings / throttle control system, etc.);
  • Special Hull Treatment continues to debond from VIRGINIA Class submarines during underway periods, often in large sections up to hundreds of square feet.

This is worrying. The welding issues that impacted the Virginia Class a few years ago was dismissed as a “one-time” problem. But, given this news, the Virginia Class problems sound like they are somewhat chronic and long-standing.

No matter how one couches these shortcomings, it is never a good sign if “hundreds of square feet” of hull materiel debonds underway. That’s a habit only ASW operators can love.

It’s the lack of institutional awareness that worries me. We’ve seen troubled programs like the LPD-17 survive even in the face of widespread and well-known internal issues. That’s official heat I can understand. At least we knew the LPD-17 was a bloated bottom feeder of a program.

But a big grab-bag of operational surprise coming from the Virginia Class? A program that has, up until now, been held out as a model for shipbuilders to follow? It’s a failure of institutional awareness should give the Navy a bit of a pause–you know, a break from DADT or mulling the imminent arrival of women aboard subs. Let’s start focusing on stuff that actually matters.


George Reiss July 28, 2010 at 1:10 pm

Reading the supposed deficiencies of the Virginia class “boats,” I was happy to see that there was no apparent problem with the Radio gear! (ex Radioman 2c, SubRon 22, USS Howard W Gilmore, AS 16. (1944-45)

Go Navy!

Craig Hooper July 17, 2010 at 2:03 am

Oh man, you should see the pictures..I mean, I see the advantage of getting away from tiles, but these failures are pretty amazing…

Ernie July 17, 2010 at 12:09 am

I was the field engineer in charge of SHT installation for the first complete SHT (USS Batfish) and several SSN 688 until I retired. I never had any major failures. Maybe one or two tiles lost. It is beyond my understanding and a sad saga that later subs are losing tiles or mold in place.

Moose July 8, 2010 at 2:36 am

Maintenance and readiness are Effed fleetwide, I wouldn’t single out the Virginias as a special case

Hull coatings debonding is not new, SSNs have been loosing tiles nearly every time out since we first started coating hulls. The Virginias don’t use tiles, they went for a sort of seamless whole-hull coating that they hoped would not come off. Unfortunately it has only made the problem worse, as soon as some of the coating debonds instead of going away it stays and starts pulling more off. We need a new glue, have for years but it hasn’t been a priority.

Craig Hooper July 7, 2010 at 9:05 pm

Yeah, I know…I can’t give out a copy, but has it on their site.

But the quote comes verbatim from the memo–a memo which includes a picture of a distressed Virginia hull and some turgid stuff about LPD-17…

Ken Adams July 7, 2010 at 8:52 pm

Where’s the memo you cite? Hard to have any kind of discussion without reviewing the source material.

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