Who says that defense acquisitions are broken and no one cares?
This week, General Dynamics' Electric Boat yard delivered the Navy's newest fast attack submarine, the future USS Mississippi, almost one year ahead of schedule. The sub's contract delivery date was April 30, 2013, and the Navy got the metaphorical keys on Wednesday.
Service officials and industry leaders are seldom so pleased. And not only did the ship come in early, the Navy said, it's the best-built, most-complete one yet.
"It should not be missed that with this one year early, under cost, delivery came the most complete, combat-ready Virginia-class submarine yet delivered. Mississippi received the highest marks to date from the Navy's independent assessor - the Board of Inspection and Survey. This program continues to set the standard for DoD acquisition," said Rear Adm. David Johnson, the Program Executive Officer for submarines, in a statement. "As the demand signal for these multi-mission platforms increases, we are working to intelligently drive down schedule and put the world's best submarines into the hands of the operators to execute missions of national importance."
All right, but how is this possible? Electric Boat spokesman Bob Hamilton told DoDBuzz there are no smoke and mirrors, just a whole lot of "process engineering."
"It’s a thorough review of the entire process, to make sure there are no steps that aren’t adding value, nothing being done in anything but the most efficient way possible," he said. "We have a huge team of process engineers working on every aspect of the program."
The Virginias are "designed for affordability and designed for producability," Hamilton said. "It's just basically looking at the whole process, from the time we start bending steel to the time we turn over the ship, to make sure every step is needed."
Electric Boat and its major partner, Newport News, set a record of 62 months with the Mississippi. That's compared to the 74 months engineers initially estimated they would need, and down from the 86 months it took to build the class-leading USS Virginia.
Hamilton acknowledged that the submarine-builders might "plateau" after the Mississippi, reaching a point at which they just could not physically build ships any faster. Future copies also will be different from the boat EB delivered this week, including a new bow section and later, probably a new weapons section. But Hamilton said EB engineers don't anticipate those changes will add much time to the ships' construction. The submarines, just like today's surface warships, are built in modules -- giant steel blocks assembled like Legos to form the final product. A new bow or a new weapons compartment would just mean different blocks to put together, the sub-builders hope.
None of this really answers the question, though: How can the Virginia class be doing so well compared to the rest of the acquisitions world? DoD and big contractors are chock full of process engineers. Everybody understands the importance of looking at the whole "kill-chain." Money definitely isn't an issue.
The answer may be the (in)famous fastidiousness of the Navy's nuclear reactors officials. Security restrictions and technical complexity mean Naval Nuclear Propulsion is a world into itself, a "benevolent dictatorship," as you've read here, responsible for nuclear plants from before they go critical until they're recycled. But just because a ship is nuclear doesn't mean it's going to be a perfect 10 every time -- Huntington-Ingalls' USS Gerald R. Ford will likely come in more than $1 billion over budget.
And the dark lining to the silver cloud of the Virginia class is that even today's breakneck pace probably will not be enough to give the Navy the fleet it says it needs. Here's what shipbuilding expert Ron O'Rourke of the Congressional Research Service said in his report about this last month:
The Navy’s FY2013 30-year SSN procurement plan, if implemented, would not be sufficient to maintain a force of 48 SSNs consistently over the long run. The Navy projects under that plan that the SSN force would fall below 48 boats starting in FY2022, reach a minimum of 43 boats in FY2028-FY2030, and remain below 48 boats through FY2034.That means older ships might have to serve longer, but submarines aren't like surface ships -- a boat's pressure hull can only do so many dives, so it's much more difficult to stretch out their lives than with a destroyer, for example. Mostly it will mean submarine crews have to take longer deployments and commanders may have to turn down missions.