Since World War II, when the German U-Boats haunted the oceans with their silent lethality, submarines have been an integral part of naval warfare. The United States is no exception; and with the third largest fleet of submarines behind China and North Korea (although there is no proof that North Korea’s submarine fleet is modern and operational), the U.S. has a formidable underwater fighting force—that is not operational.
According to a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, the U.S. Navy’s submarine fleet has a massive maintenance backlog. The November study found that between 2008 and 2018, “attack submarines have incurred 10,363 days of idle time and maintenance delays.” That equates to roughly 28 years and 5 months of downtime. One ship highlighted by GAO, the USS Boise, is emblematic of the systematic maintenance backlog problems.
Just as Idaho tends to draw the short end of the stick for state rankings by preference, so too did the USS Boise in maintenance preference. The submarine, scheduled to receive some critical maintenance in 2013, was forced to end normal operations and sit idle in a shipyard in 2016 after three years of maintenance delays. Two years later it remains useless and unproductive at a pier, waiting for maintenance that was scheduled half a decade ago.
Apart from the obvious defense readiness threats posed by a fleet of inoperative submarines, there is also an incredible cost to taxpayers. According to GAO, over the last ten years, $1.5 billion has been spent supporting submarines that are non-operational—either sitting idle waiting for maintenance to start or under maintenance that is over budget and behind schedule. This eye-popping figure does not include the cost of the actual submarine repairs and the salaries of the jobless crew, which could amount to additional millions of dollars per year.
The problem is only expected to worsen.
In the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, House Representatives Joe Courtney (D-CT) and Rob Whitman (R-VA) introduced an amendment to build three new Virginia-class submarines per year, starting in 2022. While the amendment failed to pass, voted down by a 167-244 margin, there are serious concerns among Congressional members that Chinese submarine manufacturing is happening at a rate six times that of the United States. The amendment was introduced previously in 2017 and it is expected to resurface in the future.
As for the future, GAO estimates the Navy will incur an estimated $266 million in operating and support costs for idle submarines this year. In February 2018, the maritime branch announced that it will invest $21 billion over the next 20 years to address shipyard facility needs and equipment requirements to bring the submarine fleet to fully operational status. But in 20 years’ time, many of the current U.S. submarines will be outdated and ready for replacement. While shipyards still need updating, a 20-year timeline that costs tens of billions of taxpayer dollars is unacceptable, even by Department of Defense standards.
The Navy accepted GAO’s findings, and has pledged to makes strides in improving their maintenance standards and applying best practices for shipyard updates. But unfortunately, history shows that the Pentagon has a way of torpedoing any reasonable, cost-saving measures in favor of the continued lackluster and expensive status quo. It remains to be seen whether submarine maintenance will be the same, but anything short of a major overhaul would be unacceptable.