WASHINGTON — The U.S. Navy has reorganized its entire submarine acquisition and sustainment enterprise to address attack submarine readiness as well as potential future challenges building the Columbia class of ballistic missile subs as the service and its industrial base increase construction rates and crawl out of an attack submarine shortfall.
The new organization aligns all new Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine activities and all legacy Ohio-class activities — both the SSBNs that carry nuclear missiles and the converted SSGNs that haul conventional missiles — under a single flag officer, now called the Program Executive Office for Strategic Subs (SSBN).
Similarly, all attack submarine work — building and sustaining the Virginia class, seeing the Los Angeles class through its remaining life, early phases of research and design for the next-generation SSN(X) and SSN-specific mission systems — will fall under a new PEO Attack Submarines (SSN).
And a new PEO Undersea Warfare Systems will oversee submarine combat systems and weapons, undersea communications systems, training and safety programs and more — and will serve as the undersea domain lead for Project Overmatch, which seeks to net together manned and unmanned Navy assets in all domains.
Jay Stefany, the acting assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development and acquisition, told Defense News the reorganization balances out the workload among the three portfolios, whereas previously the PEO Subs organization was overburdened. It also addresses potential problems that could arise later in the decade, giving the Navy tools to ward them off if there are early indicators of challenges arising, and it simplifies the submarine acquisition and sustainment community’s interactions with industry, the fleet and the Navy logistics community by putting just one flag officer in charge in several areas where before there were multiple stakeholders and problems could fall through the cracks.
The Navy has long said the Columbia SSBN program is its top acquisition priority. The Navy owes U.S. Strategic Command at least 10 SSBNs available to conduct patrols, lurking in the depths of the ocean with nuclear weapons onboard as the most survivable leg of the U.S. military’s nuclear triad. As the Ohio-class SSBNs reach the end of their 42-year service life, the Navy needs to ensure the new Columbia boats are ready to come online heel-to-toe and replace the Ohios, keeping that 10-boat requirement.
“What we are most concerned about is how do we overall provide capability to STRATCOM?” Stefany said. “Looked around in the organization and saw Ohio was somewhere else under a different flag officer, so let’s put Ohio with Columbia so that there’s one PEO, one flag officer, that needs to do whatever he needs to do to keep Ohio going and keep reducing the risk on Columbia so we never get below the STRATCOM requirement. So instead of two organizations, one organization, cradle-to-grave strategic missile submarines.”
The Ohio-class has already gone through life-extension work to bring the hulls to 42 years of operations, but last fall, program officials revealed they may look at each hull to see which are likely to be able to serve for a couple extra years, as a buffer to any future delays the Columbia program may face.
Stefany made clear there are no Columbia delays now and said he is confident the first boat will be ready for its fall 2030 patrol, but his confidence in on-time delivery wanes as he looks farther out in the program. The Navy bought its first SSBN in fiscal 2021, will buy the second in FY24 and will buy the remaining 10 at a one-a-year pace from FY26 through FY35.
“There is still the mountain to climb: when we go to one Columbia a year, starting in 2026 for 10 straight years, there’s hiring that’s required” to build so many submarine modules, he said, adding that there’s a plan to bring about 6,000 more employees to General Dynamics Electric Boat and to grow the base of suppliers. The plan takes into account a certain learning curve for new hires, but he said “until we do it, we won’t know” for sure.
“So if you were to ask me, I’d say Columbia number one, pretty high confidence. Columbia number two, yeah, pretty high as well. But when we start going three, four, five, six, seven, all in a row ... that’s the risk,” he said.
“I’m trying to look out three or four years from now and address something I see potentially coming,” Stefany continued. “If we were only delivering two Columbias, I’d be like, hey, great. I’m just very worried about that climb while we’re trying to build two VPMs at the same time.”
Under the new PEO SSBN organization, the flag officer — Rear Adm. Scott Pappano today — would be able to see early signs of problems on the production line and immediately look at the in-service Ohio fleet for ways to lengthen their service lives as needed. By controlling the new construction and the in-service boats, PEO SSBN will be able to ensure STRATCOM has at least 10 operational submarines to send out on patrol.
Stefany said the ability to extend the Ohios is a matter of “risk reduction. We have a plan, the plan is as good as can be, but I have some concerns that we want to have a plan B, if you will.”
Pappano previously served as the in-service Ohio-class program manager under PEO Subs. He was named the first-ever PEO Columbia when that organization was stood up in 2019.
Stefany said the Navy is doing feasibility studies now, laying out what would have to happen to each boat if the service were to decide to extend their lives. He made clear it’s not the official engineering assessment, which would be the final determination on whether the sub can safely continue operating longer than planned, but based on this early work, Stefany said at least a couple SSBNs could be extended if Columbia one-a-year construction proves to be too much of a challenge.
“We’re confident that some of them will be able to be extended. All of them, almost certainly not,” he said.
The new PEO SSBN will include a Columbia program office, an in-service SSBN and SSGN support office, and a submarine industrial base program office. The Navy previously had a complex arrangement among PEO Columbia, PEO Subs and PEO Carriers to coordinate on matters related to the nuclear ship industrial base, which is strained right now to keep up with adding in Columbia, continuing the Ford class and sustaining or increasing the rate of Virginia-class SSNs. Rather than continue to manage by committee, a single person — Matt Sermon, who will also serve as executive director of PEO SSBN — will be the lead on industrial base issues.
Stefany said Sermon will continue to coordinate with PEO SSN and PEO Carriers. However, when Congress has added money into the budget to strengthen the submarine industrial base, that money has gone in under the Columbia funding line, making it an easy decision to put this responsibility under PEO SSBN.
On the attack submarine side of the portfolio, the Navy is struggling to build and sustain its Virginia-class submarines with the reliability it expects. Shipbuilders General Dynamics Electric Boat and Huntington Ingalls Industries’ Newport News Shipbuilding have delivered the Block IV Virginias behind schedule as they struggle to get up to a two-boats-a-year construction rate, while maintainers on the in-service boats have cannibalized other subs and the new construction line to get the parts they need to return SSNs to operations.
Among the biggest challenges is that the Navy assumed certain parts of the sub would last the life of the boat. However, as in-service Virginias arrived for maintenance, the Navy found it had to replace parts that weren’t supposed to need replacing. Since there aren’t spares available, maintainers have been taking the parts from the construction line, slowing down production at Electric Boat and Newport News Shipbuilding and contributing to those new boats being late, Stefany said.
“Whether it was bad design, bad assumption, whatever — it is what it is, so now we need to go do something,” he said, and the new PEO SSN will make that easier to coordinate by having a single flag officer in charge of SSN construction and sustainment.
Previously, PEO Subs — currently led by Rear Adm. David Goggins — oversaw new construction, whereas Naval Sea Systems Command’s SEA 07 organization, led by Rear Adm. Ed Anderson, oversaw in-service boat sustainment. Stefany said the seam between the two organizations made it more difficult to capture the extent of the problem: if an in-service boat needed a part that wasn’t available, Anderson would talk to NAVSEA commander Vice Adm. Bill Galinis, who would talk to fleet commanders about their operational needs for the boat. But Goggins was out of the conversation altogether, even though it was his new-construction program that had the parts that could fix the problem.
With the reorganization, PEO SSN will have better visibility into the entire spectrum of attack submarine reliability and readiness. The PEO will redesign these problematic parts to both insert them into the rest of the new construction and to get them into the supply system so SSNs coming in for maintenance can use the new and more reliable parts. Additionally, PEO SSN will be the sole flag officer communicating with Naval Supply Systems Command and industry, who builds the new subs and will increasingly help repair them too.
Newport News Shipbuilding and Electric Boat have been helping conduct some Los Angeles-class maintenance availabilities, which have not been without challenges as the workforce tries to learn this new skill on a class of submarine the companies haven’t build since the late 1990s.
Stefany said the Navy would likely start sending only Virginia-class boats to these private yards and keep the Los Angeles-class SSNs at the Navy public shipyards. This move would further help readiness: Electric Boat and Newport News Shipbuilding would be building and maintaining just one class, and they’d have just one admiral to coordinate with for both activities.
PEO SSN will have program offices for in-service subs, Virginia new construction, SSN(X) design, undersea technologies, undersea special mission systems — including missions like SEAL delivery that are unique to attack subs — classified advanced undersea systems and Submarine Maintenance Engineering, Planning and Procurement (SUBMEPP).
PEO Undersea Warfare Systems
This new PEO represents the biggest change organizationally. Previously, SEA 07 oversaw a smattering of activities: in-service submarines, undersea special mission systems and SUBMEPP, as well as training, logistics and SUBSAFE activities.
Under the new organization, SUBMEPP and special missions have been put under PEO SSN, where they are most applicable, and in-service subs are divvied up among PEOs SSN and SSBN based on the class of submarine.
SEA 07 retains SUBSAFE and logistics, but is now dual-hatted with PEO Undersea Warfare Systems, which is set to bring the Navy’s undersea domain into the future of war fighting.
This new PEO will oversee the systems the submarines will need to succeed in a high-end environment as they seek and try to evade Russian and Chinese submarines: acoustic systems, undersea weapons, combat and weapons control, defensive warfare systems, electromagnetic systems and maritime surveillance systems.
Chiefly, though, this new PEO will also include an Undersea Domain Program Integration Office that will report both to the PEO and to Rear Adm. Doug Small, who heads the Project Overmatch effort. Overmatch is developing the networks and tools required to manage a hybrid fleet of manned and unmanned platforms that will share sensor data and let the best-placed shooter use other platforms’ sensors for targeting data.
Stefany said the Navy is creating domain leads to report to Small: a surface lead will reside within PEO Ships, an aviation lead will stand up at Naval Air Systems Command, a Marine Corps lead will be established at Marine Corps Systems Command, and a Navy land lead will be set up under Small’s own Naval Information Warfare Systems Command.
“The idea was, since Adm. Small can’t be everywhere, he needs somebody in the Navy Yard, in [Patuxent] River, in Quantico that’s his lead, and that would mean that person would be reporting to Adm. Small and also to Adm. Anderson” for the undersea portion, Stefany said.
In this arrangement, PEO Undersea Warfare Systems would help develop the communication systems for subs to talk to other subs, to unmanned underwater vessels, to seabed sensors and to other assets. This work would be done in a DevSecOps environment that would rapidly field capability to help the undersea fleet keep or grow its technological superiority.
Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs, and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.