Former senator John Warner returned to Newport News Shipbuilding on Thursday to visit the submarine named in his honor, offering praise for shipbuilders and advice for the current crop of lawmakers who find it hard to compromise.
To shipbuilders: "You're the ones who make it work, and I salute you."
To lawmakers: "This new generation of Congress persons are just going to have to figure out how to suck it up and get it done in the best interests of the country."
The shipyard, a unit of Huntington Ingalls Industries, invited the 87-year-old dean of Virginia's political leaders to mark a construction milestone for the Virginia-class submarine John Warner, SSN 785.
The submarine is now considered what the shipyard calls "pressure hull complete." It means that all of the hull sections have been welded together to form a single, water-tight unit.
It is typically greeted with less fanfare than a keel-laying, christening or commissioning, said Jim Hughes, Newport News' vice president of submarines and fleet support. But it is no less important, both in terms of actual progress and symbolism.
Newport News builds nuclear-powered submarines in partnership with Electric Boat in Groton, Conn. Pressure hull complete signifies the work of the two yards coming together. Construction began in April 2009, and the submarine is about 80 percent complete. It will be christened in late summer and is scheduled for delivery to the Navy in 2015.
Cmdr. Dan Caldwell, who will take the John Warner to sea, said the submarine has its full complement of 135 crew members, a mix of newcomers and veterans. This will be his first command, and he has watched the ship come together, a unique experience because he has seen components he wouldn't otherwise see on a completed submarine.
The Navy purchases Virginia-class submarines in blocks. Like anyone who does bulk shopping, the move saves money and — in this case — has allowed the shipyards to reduce construction time. The John Warner will be the 12th Virginia-class boat and is part of a 10-boat block buy.
The block buy strategy is key to the program's success, Hughes said. It allows the two shipyards to plan ahead in terms of schedules and supply purchases. The first Virginia-class submarine took 94 months to build. The current schedule is around 60 months, Hughes said. The John Warner will cost about $2 billion.
Helped build partnership
Warner, a leader in the Senate Armed Services Committee for years, fashioned the legislation that allowed Newport News Shipbuilding and Electric Boat to become partners instead of competitors on submarine construction. Each yard builds sections of submarines and takes turns delivering them.
Addressing hundreds of shipbuilders and sailors in the cavernous Module Outfitting Facility with the hulking submarine nearby, Warner said many people thought the partnership idea wouldn't work — that it violated anti-trust laws.
"Everybody sucked it in and said, let's see if it works — and it has worked," he said. "And it has worked largely as a result of the yards."
Warner came back to that "suck it up' theme when asked later about the current state of Congress.
In fairness, Warner said he was confident that Congress and the Defense Department could devise a way to shrink the military without hurting readiness or comprising home defense. He has known current Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel for years and said, "it's a good team they have in the department."
But Congress has struggled to agree on the military's size after 13 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. For the time being, It has staved off across-the-board cuts under sequestration. Those cuts will return in 2016 if Congress doesn't act, and if that happens the Navy says it will have to reduce its aircraft carrier fleet from 11 to 10.
Warner suggested it was easier for his generation to find common ground because many fought in World War II, Korea or the early days of Vietnam. Referring to that aforementioned "new generation of Congress," he said they would have to "leave their politics as secondary issue and put the country first — period."
The senator's visit proved profitable for Bill Hayes of Portsmouth, a 35-year shipyard veteran who works in the pipe department. Hayes likes to collect items from each Virginia-class submarine he has worked on as part of a home display.
He has hats signed by the crew. He has posters. But an autograph from a living namesake? Major score.
Hayes edged to the front of the crowd and had Warner a sign a slip of paper.
"This is really high on the list," he said, looking at the paper. "I wish I had a hat."