Unspecified problems after trial run are cited, the USS Washington now 7 months behind schedule.Hugh Lessig, Daily Press
17 March 2017
Since 2008, the Virginia-class submarine program has been on a good run, with shipbuilders delivering the high-demand boats to the Navy months ahead of schedule.
That streak will be broken with submarine Washington, which will be delivered late from Huntington Ingalls Newport News Shipbuilding. Like other Virginia-class subs, Newport News built the submarine in partnership with the prime contractor, General Dynamics Electric Boat of Groton, Conn.
The submarine went on initial sea trials earlier this month when it "encountered a material issue" that required a return to port, according to Capt. Thurraya Kent, a Navy spokeswoman.
The boat already had missed a September 2016 delivery date and was scheduled to be commissioned March 25. That timetable is now under review, Kent said.
The Navy declined to specify the problem with Washington, which was first reported by Defense News. Kent said the issue is not related to the submarine's integrity or its nuclear propulsion plant.
The late delivery "is not indicative of a systemic problem" with the submarine, she said.
Once the sub is commissioned and completes any post-shakedown fixes, it should be turned over to the Navy at or near the original date, she said.
News is also better on the budget front: it should be completed at or under the Navy's target cost.
More demands on shipyards
In 2011, the Navy authorized stepped-up production of Virginia-class subs, going from one to two per year, ordering the Washington and the USS Illinois.
That move now is coming to fruition. The USS Illinois has been delivered from Electric Boat, and it was ahead of schedule. The Washington is now on deck. (Each shipyard builds components of the submarines, then take turns in final assembly and delivery.)
Besides going to two per year, the Navy also has demanded shorter construction schedules. Shipbuilders have met that challenge in recent years. When the program began, a submarine took 84 months to build. It's now down to 66 months and shipyards eventually will be held to a 60-month schedule.
The subs are popular with Navy commanders, who have told Congress that more are needed. Costs and schedules have come down partly due to the Navy's practice of buying the subs in "blocks," essentially bulk buys that allow the shipyards to plan ahead.
But both shipyards face near-future challenges. In 2021, the Navy plans to start production on a new fleet of Columbia-class submarines while still building the Virginia-class boats. The Columbia subs are much larger and will have the ability to launch ballistic nuclear missiles.
Newport News and Electric Boat currently have a 50-50 workload split on the Virginia class. Electric Boat will do about 80 percent of the work on Columbia class. As a result, Newport News will pick up more Virginia class work.
Those two yards are the exclusive builders of nuclear-powered submarines for the U.S. Navy.
Is the Washington delay a sign that stepped-up production and shorter schedules are straining the shipyards?
Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Westmoreland, pointed out that this delay is the exception, not the rule. But he also said
Congress must be mindful of how it can help shipyards and the supplier base.
"In this situation, I think it is a one-time occurrence," he said. "It does require all of us, the Navy and both of the yards, to look very carefully at what they're doing."
Westmoreland chairs the Armed Services subcommittee on sea power, and will be heavily involved in the Trump administration's plan to expand the Navy fleet.
Wittman mentioned the experience factor. Electric Boat in particular has ramped up hiring. The Hartford Courant reported last year that the company had hired 4,000 workers since 2012 and planned to add as many as 850 in 2016.
That has helped expand capacity, but it takes time for new workers to become proficient, Wittman said. The supplier base also must expand to keep pace.
"I think the things we see are clearly identifiable and clearly manageable," Wittman said.
Newport News referred comment on the Washington to Electric Boat. A statement emailed to the Daily Press on behalf of EB President Jeff Geiger said, in part:
"When technical issues are encountered during the construction process, the shipbuilders take this very seriously. We aggressively work to correct issues and put processes in place to prevent recurrence. Ongoing process improvements are key to continuing to reduce construction span times and