Navigating the Depths: The US Navy’s Quest for Submarine Spare Parts
Posted on 10/4/23
The US Navy is facing significant challenges procuring spare parts for their submarine fleet, greatly impacting their maintenance program. Nearly 40% of the Navy’s attack submarines are either undergoing repairs or awaiting maintenance. The issue has been attributed to a shortage of skilled workers, delays at shipyards, and disruptions in the supply chain.
According to a recent report from the Congressional Research Service, out of the Navy’s 49 fast attack submarines, 18 are currently in depot maintenance or idle. This number is considerably higher than the Navy’s target of only 20% of the fast attack fleet undergoing maintenance at one time. The Navy hasn’t reached this goal since 2015 when 19%of the fleet was either in or awaiting maintenance. Since then, the number and rate of submarines out of commission has steadily risen to reach the current high of 37%.
A shortage of skilled workers able to carry out the necessary repairs and lack of space at shipyards has greatly hindered maintenance efforts. Antiquated shipyard infrastructure has only added to the problem, especially considering four drydocks certified to overhaul nuclear submarines were closed in early 2023 due to the risk of seismic activity.
In addition, supply chain issues have emerged as one of the most significant factors hindering submarine maintenance efforts. Submarines rely on a wide array of specialized parts, many of which come from sole-source suppliers. Delays in acquiring these parts can lead to prolonged maintenance periods and hinder the submarines’ operational readiness.
Parts obsolescence is the major obstacle the Navy is facing while trying to maintain their submarines. The rapid pace of technological advancement in the private sector has led to discontinued production of some components, making it challenging for the Navy to find suitable replacements. As a result, when critical parts are no longer available from the OEM, it poses a severe challenge for maintaining aging submarines that are expected to remain operational for several more decades.
Admiral Kenneth Epps, the commander of Naval Supply Systems Command Weapon Systems Support commented on this issue when he spoke to National Defense Magazine, “We cannot solve that problem when an OEM stops making something and their production line ends, and this boat is going to be operating for 30 more years. How do we do that? That is symbolic of the entire supply chain challenge that we live with right now.”
Submarines rely on a wide array of specialized parts, many of which come from sole-source suppliers, delays in acquiring these parts can lead to prolonged maintenance periods and hinder the submarines’ operational readiness. On top of this, representatives from congress have admitted to not adequately funding “sparing accounts” or spare parts, further impeding maintenance efforts.
To address these challenges and prioritize operational readiness, the Navy is revamping and rethinking its maintenance and sustainment efforts. The on-time maintenance delivery percentage currently stands at 40%, lagging behind private sector yards that are achieving 90-95% on-time material delivery.
The Navy’s answer to antiquated shipyard infrastructure comes in the form of the Shipyard Infrastructure Optimization Plan (SIOP). The plan involves investments in four shipyards, focusing on three key areas: dry dock capability and capacity, modernizing facilities and infrastructure, and upgrading industrial equipment. The Navy will also attempt to combat the hiring shortage at shipyards by improving artisan pay and promoting expert mechanics. Overcoming the difficulties in sourcing spare parts for the US Navy’s submarine fleet will require a multifaceted approach. The current challenges have significantly impacted the maintenance program, leading to a substantial portion of the fleet being idle or in depot maintenance. With ambitious plans to procure two fast attack submarines annually, the Navy remains committed to enhancing operational readiness for its submarine fleet in the face of these complex challenges.
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