The attack submarine Connecticut (SSN-22) was recently forced to return to Guam after striking an object while operating in the Pacific. (U.S. Navy photo by Thiep Van Nguyen II)

WASHINGTON: The recent incident involving the attack submarine Connecticut (SSN-22) and its subsequent emergency return to Guam prompted lawmakers to resurface their concerns about the pace and efficacy of the Navy’s 20-year plan to optimize its public shipyards.

The SIOP, or Shipyard Infrastructure Optimization Plan, is the service’s ongoing $21 billion program to revitalize its four public shipyards. It includes replacing outdated equipment, building or repairing dry docks with future ships in mind, and re-organizing yard layouts to improve workflow efficiency. The Pentagon’s fiscal year 2022 budget request includes $830 million for SIOP.

But as the Navy rebuilds, the Connecticut’s accident “just shows how the Navy, and all the forces, are dynamic forces,” Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., said today during a House Armed Services subcommittee hearing.

“The world gets a vote and things change and unexpected incidents create more demand for repairs. The attack subs have always been the poor cousin in the public shipyards in terms of getting priority,” Courtney said.

On Oct. 2 the submarine struck an unknown object while operating in the Pacific and was forced to return to Guam to assess damages to the boat. While none of the crew sustained life threatening injuries, it remains to be seen how long the submarine will be sidelined. Since an initial statement, the Navy has said little about the boat, except that it is continuing to investigate.

Courtney pointed out that Guam lacks a dry dock, meaning if there’s any serious damage done, the sub may be forced to return to one of the public shipyards for maintenance.

Frederick Stefany, the Navy’s acting acquisition executive, acknowledged that could disrupt the service’s pre-existing maintenance schedules. He also said the Navy recognizes the importance of being able to surge its maintenance capabilities.

“We need to optimize them [the shipyards] to create the surge space — surge ability, whether it’s an accident or wartime damage or whatever — that we have to have that ability to surge,” he said.

The acquisition chief also acknowledged the Navy has previously relied on private shipyards to supplement maintenance capabilities, but that it comes with a cost to the timelines for any new construction efforts those shipyards have underway.

Stefany in written testimony today said the submarines Hartford (SSN-768) and Boise (SSN-764), a boat that has sat idle for years angering lawmakers to no end, will begin engineered overhauls this fiscal year at private shipyards.

Stefany’s testimony today came alongside that of his counterparts from the Army, Air Force and Office of the Secretary of Defense before the House Armed Services subcommittee on readiness about depot modernization and optimization. (All four witnesses speaking on behalf of the Pentagon at the hearing are serving in acting capacities as the military’s acquisition executives.)

Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., at the start of the hearing took the military to task in his opening remarks for giving lip service to maintenance, but not matching that with funding.

“We’ve heard these are national treasures,” he said, referring to remarks about depots from various generals, admirals and service secretaries. “And yet, the supposed commitment to the depots is not translated into action. The organic industrial base infrastructure is chronically underfunded to the point these facilities are relics of the past.”

The dry docks being built through the SIOP, for example, will be the first built by the Navy in the past 70 years.

The congressman requested each service provide reports to the committee within the next three months about their immediate plans for depot modernization for the next five years. The Navy did just that in late September outlining plans for the SIOP, according to Stefany.

“The Department has also re-assessed construction and procurement timelines to effectively implement SIOP activities, while executing ongoing and planned submarine and aircraft carrier maintenance availabilities,” according to Stefany’s written testimony.

In recognition of the SIOP’s importance and expanse, the Navy in September established the effort as a program executive office, an announcement that brings it greater influence in the budget-making process and direct oversight of a general officer, Rear Adm. Troy McClelland. McClelland is due to be in place at his new billet by Dec. 1, according to Stefany.

While lawmakers have been generally supportive of the Navy’s efforts to improve its maintenance facilities, that support has come with skepticism and concern about the project’s efficacy thus far. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., in July asked Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro during his confirmation hearing about possible cost overruns and delays. His answer at the time largely deflected the question, simply saying it was an important issue.

The Senate’s defense policy bill, which has been stalled on Capitol Hill as lawmakers and the White House negotiate infrastructure legislation, includes requirements for the service to provide Congress with information about certain SIOP cost overruns, analyses on what could have mitigated the causes, possible revisions to current plans and what steps the Navy will take to prevent the issues from occurring elsewhere.

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