Electric Boat could benefit from problems with submarine parts
By: Sten Spinella
June 29, 2021
Groton — Problems with submarine parts failing faster than predicted could lead to more work for private shipyards such as Electric Boat.
Last week, U.S. Navy officials informed the Senate Armed Services Committee that parts on their 48 Virginia-class fast-attack submarines have been failing more quickly than predicted, according to media reports. Some of those parts had been expected to last the life of the sub. Workers in public Navy yards have had to borrow parts from submarines arriving for maintenance, which is causing delays in repairing them, according to the Navy.
The problems, though, could actually benefit private yards like Electric Boat because the Navy yards cannot keep up with the work, said Congressman Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, a senior member of the Armed Services Committee.
"The public yards right now are so backed up, the backlog of submarines that they are looking at, there's a real bottleneck there," Courtney said. "That's a much bigger problem than parts in my opinion. You can fix the parts issue quicker than you can the capacity of our public yards ability to do this work. They also have to do the aircraft carriers, the boomers, the big subs, and the attack subs are kind of third in the buffet line in terms of getting help."
"Boomers" are ballistic missile submarines designed for stealth.
Courtney added that it took a while to convince the Navy that it needed to get out of what he calls a "sort-of institutional bias" in favor of public yards doing repair work. A CBO analysis shows that private yards such as EB have the capacity to do the work, and its cost per unit is comparable to public shipyards.
General Dynamics spokeswoman Liz Power addressed the repair and maintenance problems.
"As the Navy stated, contractor issues contribute to only a small percentage of parts wearing out prematurely. We work closely with the Navy to help it address any unanticipated issues with parts, to include initiatives to design improvements that can be applied to future boats," Power wrote in an email. "Overhaul and repair work is important to EB because it allows us to manage ebbs and flows in the workload associated with Virginia and Columbia programs, and enables our workforce to maintain proficiency in crucial skills."
There is one current example of EB taking over repair work often done by the Navy yards.
The company is conducting repairs on the USS Hartford, a Los Angeles-class attack submarine, after the Department of Defense awarded Electric Boat a $64-million modification to an existing $125 million contract for the overhaul of the submarine.
In a message to employees, EB President Kevin Graney said the Hartford, currently docked at the Groton waterfront, is among three Virginia-class attack submarines docked at the south end of the yard: USS South Dakota (SSN-790) and USS Delaware (SSN-791) and USS Vermont (SSN-792), which are all undergoing work.
Graney reported that EB has achieved several construction milestones at the Groton yard, including the completion May 27 of the structural deck of the South Yard Assembly Building, increasing its capacity to work on submarines.
“I was down at EB a couple weeks ago and met with Kevin Graney; we spent a lot of time talking about the repair side of their portfolio,” Courtney said. “They want to do more of this after the Hartford because it’s a good way to keep the workforce level. Even though it sounds like the new production is cascading, they do still have some peaks and valleys in terms of their work schedule.”
Courtney said the the Hartford project is going to be “under a microscope” by both the Navy and Congress. If it produces good results, “I think that will solve a problem for the Navy and create more opportunities for private shipyards like EB.”
Still, Courtney said, the Navy shouldn't have to be replacing some of these parts that are meant to last for the life of the submarine. He said Congress needs to better understand why this is happening and where there will be chronic repair issues in the future.
House Democrats released a $706 billion military funding bill Tuesday and Courtney said the legislation presents an opportunity to address submarine building and maintenance issues. Courtney said the Navy's issue with the parts won't make it harder for him to get funding for submarines.
“We’re already in the process of marking up the defense bill, and at this point our plans are to get language in the bill to direct the Navy to use some resources that will be made available for supply chain companies to boost the availability of parts,” Courtney said. “‘Cannabilizing,’ or reusing parts is not some completely new practice. But it’s not an efficient way to do it, and that’s what needs to be taken care of.”
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