Contact Us   |    Join   |    Donate


Captain John Heffron was the Virginia Class Submarine Program Manager from 2001 until his retirement from the U. S. Navy in 2005. He delivered the first ship of the class, USS Virginia (SSN 774). During that time and subsequently he has had firsthand experience with the Astute Submarine Program in the UK, and with the Collins and Future Submarine Programs in Australia.

As has been widely reported in various journals and articles, the success of the VIRGINIA Class Submarine Program has been attributed in large part to the effort to truly learn and carry forward the lessons learned from the SEA WOLF Program. The VIRGINIA Class Program followed close on the heels of the SEA WOLF Program and the principal players involved, both in government and in industry, were determined to have a better outcome in terms of cost and schedule performance than the earlier program experienced. They had the advantage of recent, firsthand experience to draw upon from a program that originally envisioned a 29 ship class but was foreshortened to only three.

Likewise, the United Kingdom, embarking on a new program to replace its four VANGUARD Class submarines, is in a position to avail itself of lessons learned on the ASTUTE Submarine Program. Australia, after what will be more than a decade hiatus from submarine shipbuilding, is contemplating a replacement for its COLLINS Class submarines.

Australia’s case is more typical of submarine shipbuilding programs in most countries. As budget realities and engineering re-evaluations of hull life are resulting in longer operational lives of submarines, new starts for submarine programs are becoming less frequent. Unless positive steps are consciously taken submarine design, engineering, construction, testing and management skills atrophy over time. In order to continuously improve and deal with the periods of no design and production work, the positive steps required are to document, learn, remember and use past lessons, both good and bad, in future programs. Not all lessons apply in all circumstances, so it is important to also understand the context of a particular program and the circumstances it faced in order to apply the lessons appropriately.

As a first step to minimizing these losses in the submarine enterprise it is important to document the lessons of the past and occasionally reinforce them in a public forum. Recently the RAND Corporation authored a four volume report, Learning from Experience, which extensively documents lessons learned from submarine programs in the United States, United Kingdom and Australia. This article summarizes and reinforces the most important, overarching lessons learned and adds other observations that may be helpful to those leading future submarine building programs, or for that matter, any large and complex design and construction enterprise.

Program success is usually measured in terms of how well the program met cost, schedule and performance requirements. Assuming that performance requirements must indeed be met and cannot be traded off once established, and that schedule has some flexibility within limits as long as costs are controlled, cost usually becomes the single most important factor in determining the success of a program. So most of the lessons learned discussed here relate to controlling costs, and in particular, program acquisition costs. Sustainment costs over the life of a submarine are generally much greater than acquisition costs. However, acquisition cost is usually the measure of success of a program, and it is up to the program manager to ensure he or she takes the right steps to properly address sustainment planning and the tradeoffs between acquisition and sustainment efforts. For any given program, success in the sustainment area will likely take decades to determine.

Additionally, the scope of lessons learned included here is mostly limited to those that apply across any program, regardless of country differences, political environments, supporting industrial bases, budget limitations or threat environments. Finally, specific lessons learned in the areas of requirements generation, acquisition planning, design, build and sustainment will be briefly discussed and are worthy of more detailed review in future articles.

Overarching Lessons, Things You Must Get Right -Develop and Maintain the Trust of the Legislators

Submarine design and construction programs are among the most complex programs a government undertakes. They are also among the strategically most important and usually well supported politically. Early, frequent and open communication with legislators and their staffs regarding cost, schedule and risks, while sometimes unpleasant at the time, builds long term trust and credibility, and ultimately helps ensure the long term funding needed for a multi-decade program is appropriated. At the time the Virginia Program received multi-year funding the lead ship had not yet been delivered but the program demonstrated a real understanding of what needed to be done to be successful, and gave Congress confidence that the program was moving in the right direction. The trust exhibited by Congress was, and still is, well placed.

A steady and reliable funding stream helps ensure one of the most important ingredients to program success, which is the next overarching lesson.

Program Stability

A former president of General Dynamics Electric Boat Corporation, Michael Toner, once remarked to the author, “Three things are important to me: stability, stability and stability.” In addition to long-term funding stability, stability is important in many other areas: operational and technical requirements that are firm and unchanging; program management personnel and leaders unchanging; program management personnel and leaders who make long-term personal commitments to the program; and partnerships between the government and the private sector that are well established and enduring. From the contractors’ point of view, stability allows for investment in facilities and people with the confidence that those investments will pay off in the future. For the government, stability facilitates steady improvement in cost performance and positive learning curve results.

For the US, another stabilizing factor is the leadership and overarching guidance across the entire nuclear shipbuilding enterprise provided by the Naval Reactors organization. The long term continuity of technical expertise, authority and leadership provided by Naval Reactors forms a solid foundation and way of conducting business that is well understood and followed by government and industry. Such expert domain knowledge and leadership is also evident in the U. S. Navy’ s Program Executive Office, Submarines and leads to the next lesson.

The Importance of Government Being a Knowledgeable and Informed Customer

As the acceptance authority and user of the final product, a submarine, the government must be knowledgeable and informed in order to make timely, correct and cost effective decisions regarding designer and shipbuilder technical recommendations and tradeoffs.

Making correct decisions involves understanding risk and determining whether government or industry owns the risk. This, in turn, means that roles and responsibilities must be clearly stated and, while remaining partners, that boundaries between government and industry be respected. Whoever owns the risk must have the decision making authority to take actions required to mitigate or retire the risk. In order aggressively to manage risk, all parties should have formal risk and opportunity programs that are regularly supported by reviews with senior program leadership.

The UK and Australia, and to some extent the US in its Super-visor of Shipbuilding commands, have lapsed in this area in the face of budget pressures. Having seen the consequences, they are making efforts to rebuild their capabilities. Lessons learned in the Astute and Collins programs have been particularly dramatic and have led to major efforts to re-grow or in some cases establish for the first time the required domain knowledge and skills required to be a knowledgeable customer. This is timely for Australia as it considers starting its Future Submarine Program (SEA I 000) and for the UK as it assumes the design authority role when the third Astute Class submarine enters service.

Budget challenges will only become more severe in the foreseeable future. One way to mitigate the challenges is through cooperation. The US, UK and Australia have agreements in place that allow for the interchange of personnel and technical information. Expanding those agreements may allow for more efficient and continuous use of limited resources. The ties of common interests and customs among all three countries are significant. This cultural affinity lowers transaction costs and enhances communication. Reading a plan or reading a contract is important, but you also need to be able to read people.

Understanding the Impact of Program Gaps

Even though the US has not experienced any true gaps in submarine production in the modern era, the Virginia Class Program offers an instructive lesson. When General Dynamics Electric Boat and Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding (now Huntington Ingalls Industries) teamed at the start of the program, EB had been continuously building submarines but HII had experienced a l 0 year hiatus from submarine production following completion of the Los Angeles Class Program. In spite of continuous government and EB involvement in submarine production and significant EB assistance at the HII shipyard in Newport News, VA, the difference in production performance between the two shipyards was significant at the start of the program. The ships are delivered alternately from the two shipyards (the first by EB, the second by HII, etc., with the delivering shipyard being responsible for approximately 70% of the performance for the ships it delivers). For the first few ships of the class, the learning curve was not the expected smoothly decreasing curve, but rather a saw tooth decreasing curve with performance for the first ship being better than for the second and so on. The issue was not that this performance could necessarily have been avoided but that it was not properly anticipated and resources applied to manage the situation.

Similarly in the UK, the gap between completion of the Van-guard Class and the start of the Astute Class contributed to early Astute problems. Australia has a similar problem as there has been no submarine production work accomplished in that country since completion of the Collins Class. Compounding this, Australia has never accomplished a complete submarine design in country. The Collins Class was based on a Swedish design from Kockums AB. But at least there is recognition of this problem and it appears to be a factor in considering the planning and funding strategy for the SEA I 000 Program. Also, during the Submarine Institute of Australia’s inaugural Submarine Science, Technology and Engineering Conference in 2011, one of the principal government speakers took the approach that the SEA 1000 Program is not a program with certain start and stop dates but is rather the start of a continuous, evolving and properly paced national enterprise involving submarine designers, builders and the industrial base. The intent seems to be to avoid gaps in the future.

Whether it is more cost-effective to allow gaps to occur and later rebuild capabilities or to pace work so as to avoid gaps is a decision each country must make. There are hidden costs associated with both approaches that are easily overlooked, but must be taken into consideration to ensure long-term success.

Involve All Players Who Will Eventually Touch the Submarine

A wide variety of people are involved in a submarine over its life. A partial list includes: fleet operators (Sailors); maintainers; designers and engineers in the hull, mechanical, electrical, weight, electronic, combat systems, propulsion, signature, safety, acoustic, testing and other fields; logisticians; planners and schedulers; construction trades; quality assurance personnel; program managers and many others. Most need to be brought into the program early and learn to work together in a respectful, productive and mutually supportive team environment.

In many cases there will be competing priorities, and considerable differences and biases regarding how to approach issues. Every Sailor wants his or her own bunk and personal space, maintainers want easy access to equipment, trades people want designs that are easy to build, logisticians want maximum commonality of parts, and so on. Yet the submarine is either weight limited or volume limited and all work must be done within a certain budget and schedule. Tradeoffs and compromises are inevitable and must be conducted in a manner that, regardless of the final solution, acknowledges the value of and considers all points of view.

Do not underestimate the need for formal team building training. This upfront investment was made in the Virginia Program and resulted in Integrated Product Teams that worked together effectively and, in the main, in a cordial manner.

Transparency, Openness and Alignment

The importance of open and honest communication with legislators to help ensure funding stability was mentioned earlier. Political support is important and must be continually cultivated. Other forms of transparency and openness are important as well.

First, the team members need to maintain a policy of full disclosure with one another. If a budget cut is coming, figure out together how to deal with it. If an engineering issue is proving particularly difficult, a joint government/industry team may be the most effective approach to solving it. Two things to remember in a partnering environment, while they might sound a bit trite, are I.) Bad news doesn’t get better with age and 2.) Focus on solving the problem first and contractual consequences second.

The submarine community in the US is organized in such a way that it is hard to imagine the Fleet, NAVSEA, OPNA V and other government agencies not being fully aligned when advancing a submarine program. However, this has not been the case in Australia. To ensure the success of the Future Submarine Program, efforts will need to be made so that the Defence Material Organization, Defence Science and Technology Organization, Department of Finance and Deregulation, and Royal Australian Navy are all synchronized, and together with the designer and shipbuilder, they must then focus on their common goals in a unified way.

The US, UK and Australia all live in democracies, each with a robust free press. Managing the media is important and bad press on a program can be crippling. Open and articulate media managers, who also communicate with one another, are needed in industry and government to ensure effective proactive media engagement and that positive program messages are publicized.

Requirements Generation, Acquisition Planning, De-sign/Build and Sustainment Lessons

The continuum of program events from generation of requirements to sustainment of the delivered submarine yields numerous lessons learned. Briefly, a few will now be discussed in general terms without reference to a particular country or program. Much more detail is available in the previously cited RAND reports and in the EB publication on Virginia Class lessons learned.

Requirements Generation

As previously mentioned, firm and unchanging requirements are key to a stable program. To make this a reality requires early collaboration between the operational and the technical communities. The technical community (designers, engineers, maintainers and builders) must verify that what the operational community desires is technically achievable at an acceptable level of risk and cost. It is lower risk to aspire to the state of the practice instead of the state of the art and to promote evolutionary change rather than revolutionary change. Radical changes in diving depth, propulsion (flank speed), payload handling/launch capability, and stealth, all at the same time, with attendant integration effort, have been attempted in the past and have Jed to cost and schedule blow outs. Up front, well considered, achievable requirements (stated in terms of a range from threshold and objective), as well as agreement on how requirements will be tested, will minimize design and construction changes, and allow for on budget and on schedule program performance.

Acquisition Planning

Acquisition planning, including contracting arrangements, varies considerably from country to country. However, the guiding principles in all cases should be openness; consideration of what is fair to all parties; establishment of an environment that fosters collaboration, incentivizes performance and enables competition at the appropriate levels; and avoidance of what the UK’s National Audit Office calls “the conspiracy of optimism” or the tendency of all parties to underestimate risks, challenges and needed resources. Leadership that continually focuses on the common goal is essential. Generally, contracting for the design, first ship and other ships under construction before the first ship is delivered should be in a single contract on a cost plus fixed, award or incentive fee basis. Thereafter, a fixed price arrangement is appropriate. Realistic cost and schedule estimates are essential and incentives should be tailored to achieve the results desired. Logical decisions regarding ownership of risk must be made. Change management must be formal and well understood by all parties. And adequate management reserve, determined by the level of technical risk, should be established to deal with contingencies.


At a high level, some aspects of this topic have already been discussed, such as the need to involve appropriate stakeholders early in the design process. Other lessons include rigorous oversight of design margins, and not starting construction until all arrangement drawings and most of the detail design drawings are complete. Computer aided design and construction models are very useful in mitigating construction risk. Build the submarine multiple times electronically before building it once in steel. Just as collaboration in design is important, so is collaboration on the deck plates during construction. The Navy program office must have a strong presence in the shipyard during construction and test. Last, in order to orchestrate all activities in the design/build phase, the program must have a single integrated master plan and integrated master schedule that everyone follows.


Sustainment planning needs to start at the beginning of the design process. For example, maintenance envelopes and equipment removal paths must be accommodated in the submarine’s basic arrangements.

A disciplined approach by a strong program manager is needed to maintain the sustainment budget early in a program. As management reserve is consumed during the design/build phase, it is tempting to raid the sustainment budget to take care of present issues. Lack of sustainment funding and planning may not be noticed until years into the future. But using sustainment budgets to lower acquisition costs and mitigate design/build issues can easily result in a lack of the resources required to support the long-term goal of achieving lower through-life and total program costs. An adequate sustainment budget is needed early in the program in order to conduct proper maintenance and modernization planning.


Every lesson presented here is the result of issues that arose in US, UK and Australian submarine programs. In many cases the issues have recurred from program to program within a country or across two or all three nations. In other words, the lessons learned were not really learned. They were either not known, miss-applied, forgotten, or ignored. Documentation of issues is just the first step in the learning process. It is up to the government and industry partners in the Ohio Replacement, Vanguard Replacement and SEA 1000 Programs to truly learn, remember and use the lessons appropriate to their circumstances in order to move towards success in future submarine building programs.

Naval Submarine League Honor Roll

American Systems Corporation
Applied Mathematics, Inc.
Cortana Corporation
Curtiss-Wright Flow Control Company
Dell Services Federal Government
DRS Technologies, Inc.
General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems
General Dynamics Electric Boat
L-3 Communications Ocean Systems
Lockheed Martin Corporation
Newport News Shipbuilding, a Division of Huntington Ingalls Industries
Northrop Grumman Corporation ┬ĚNaval Marine Systems Division
Raytheon Company
RIX Industries
Sargent Aerospace & Defense
Sonalysts, Inc.
Systems Planning and Analysis, Inc.
The Babcock & Wilcox Company
Treadwell Corporation
Ultra Electronics Ocean Systems, Inc.
URS Federal Services

Benefactors for More Thgn Ten Year

Alion Science & Technology
Business Resources, Inc.
Cunico Corporation
L-3 Communications Corporation
Materials Systems, Inc.
Northrop Grumman Corporation-Marine Systems
Northrop Grumman Corporation-Undersea Systems
Oil States Industries/Aerospace Products Division
Pacific Fleet Submarine Memorial Association, Inc.
Progeny Systems Corporation
Rolls Royce Naval Morine, Inc.
SSS Clutch Company, Inc.
UTC Aerospace Systems

Benefactors for More Than Five Years

Micropore, Inc.
Nuclenr Fuel Services, Inc.
Oceaneering International, Inc.
Ocean Works International, Inc.
PaciPinkerton Government Services, Inc.
Superbolt, Inc.
TSM Corporation
VCR, Inc.
Whitney, Bradley & Brown, Inc.

Additional Benefactors

3 Phoenix, Inc.
Advanced Acoustic Concepts, LLC
AMI International
Analysis, Design & Diagnostics, Inc. (New in 2012)
BAE Systems Integrated Technical Solutions
CACI International Inc.
Dynamic Controls, Ltd.
EVT Global, Inc.
General Atomics
General Dynamics
Global Services & Solutions, Inc.
In-Depth Engineering Corporation
KENNCOR LLC (New in 2012)
L-3 Chesapeake Sciences Corporation
L-3 Tactical Systems, Inc.
Murray Guard, Inc.
Northrop Grumman Corporation-Maritime Systems
Security Technologies International, LLC
Siemens PLM Software
Subsystem Technologies, Inc.
Therrnacore, Inc. (New in 2012)
Westland Technologies, Inc.

Naval Submarine League

© 2022 Naval Submarine League