Submarines are, arguably, the most potent platform in the Navy. Accepting that, you’d think the Navy would do everything they can to maximize the lifespan of submarines. Indeed, some submarines undergo mid-life overhauls to maximize or even extend their service lives. Currently,
(688) class subs have a nominal service life of 33
years and studies have been done indicating that an additional 5-10 years is
feasible with proper overhauls, maintenance, and upgrades. Los Angeles
The main overhaul in the life of a 688 occurs at around the /3 lifespan mark. The overhaul is either an Engineered Refueling Overhaul for earlier subs which require nuclear refueling or an Engineered Overhaul for those that don’t. The overhauls require a year and a half to two years and include structural and systems repair, replacement, and upgrades. The cost is around $200M per boat.
As an example, Huntington Ingalls Industries just received a contract for $58M to conduct the planning portion of the USS Columbus (SSN 762) overhaul with options on the contract totaling $289M for the complete overhaul.
With all this in mind, you’d think that the Navy would be making every effort to maximize submarine service life, as we said at the start. However, examination of actual commissioning/decommissioning dates reveals that many subs are being retired early.
Here is the service life data on the first 31
submarines with their pennant numbers and years of service at decommissioning. Los
688 34 yrs
The data is quite stunning. The average age at decommissioning was only 21.9 years. Only 4 subs made it to 30+ years and 11 didn’t even make 20 years – that’s more than 13 years short of the nominal lifespan.
This is bad enough on its own but, unfortunately, we’ve previously discussed and documented the anticipated submarine shortfall over the next decade or so (see, "SSN Shortfall"). While an early 688 class sub is no longer state of the art, it is still worlds better than any potential enemy sub out there. We have a shortfall coming and we're throwing subs away?
The Navy is crying to Congress over budget limitations and the need for more submarines while at the same time throwing away perfectly good submarines long before their lifespans have been completed. This is not good stewardship of the people’s money nor is it good use of military assets. Congress should firmly send the Navy packing with its budget requests and a message to come back when they’ve learned how to use the resources they’ve got – and they’ve got a LOT if they’d quit retiring them early.
The overhaul cost of $200M is a bargain to gain an additional ten to twenty years of service. Remember, the cost of new
class subs is around $2.5B. For the cost of a single Virginia, we could have overhauled the 11 subs that didn't even make 20 years of service and gained, say, 15 years for each which makes a total of 165 sub-years of service life compared to the 22 sub-years of life we'd get from the one skipped Virginia (using the actual historical submarine lifespan). Virginia
This is almost criminal irresponsibility. This is our Navy.