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Congressional report expects submarine builder to face delays, bottlenecks

By STEPHEN SINGER | The Hartford Courant | Published: September 26, 2019

(Tribune News Service) — As Groton-based Electric Boat ramps up submarine production, a congressional report has warned that it could run into manufacturing bottlenecks and rising pressure to broaden its network of suppliers of components and systems.

The Virginia-class nuclear-powered attack submarine procured by the Navy since 1998 has been credited for successful on-time, on-budget delivery. But the Sept. 17 report by the Congressional Research Service said the program has run into delays, which it has warned of before.

The report questioned the ability of Electric Boat, a subsidiary of General Dynamics Corp., and its suppliers to build three Virginia-class submarines, at a cost of about $9.3 billion, and one Columbia-class ballistic submarine a year.

“Observers have expressed concern about the industrial base’s capacity for building both Virginia- and Columbia-class boats without encountering bottlenecks or other production problems in one or both of these programs,” it said.

Representatives of Electric Boat and the Navy did not immediately respond to emails seeking comment.

Electric Boat is building two Virginia-class attack submarines a year and is designing the ballistic Columbia-class submarines to be ordered from 2021 to 2035, replacing the aging Ohio-class subs.

Ups and downs in production could have an impact on the sea-based defense of the United States, the report warns. The Navy’s attack submarine force included 51 submarines at the end of the 2018 budget year. The Navy’s goal is a force of 66 submarines.

Rep. Joe Courtney said EB and local officials are aware of the problems and pledged at a ceremony Sept. 13 marking the start of construction of an assembly building at the Groton shipyard that deadlines will be met to produce submarines on time.

“This stuff has been swirling around for a while," said Courtney, whose congressional district includes EB’s shipyard. “I’m not trying to minimize what’s happening down there. We implied at the groundbreaking there are a lot of challenges and work that needs to be done to make sure it happens.”

Citing the Navy’s priority of the next-generation Columbia-class submarine, EB’s outgoing president, Jeffrey Geiger, said at the ceremony the ships “cannot be built and go to sea on time unless shipbuilding begins in this completed facility as planned in 2023.”

Courtney also said a vendor responsible for a problem that delayed production on the Columbia has been replaced and a remediation plan is in place. Still, he said there are “probably going to be some issues we don’t know at this point.”

In addition, he said, EB knows it must expand its vendor base and is doing so.

To keep up with demand, EB has been hiring and expanding its supplier base. Last year, it surpassed 17,000 employees for the first time since 1992, up by 1,000, Geiger said in January. Of that, about 12,000 are in Connecticut. EB hired 2,241 workers last year and expects to bring on a total of 1,400 this year, with 500 in Quonset Point, R.I., in addition to the 900 in Connecticut.

The number of attack subs is projected to hit bottom at 42 in 2027-2028. Because the U.S. took on relatively few such submarines in the 1990s, in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the report said a “period of heightened operational strain” is possible for the fleet “and perhaps a period of weakened conventional deterrence against potential adversaries such as China.”

The Navy’s 30-year shipbuilding plan projects that after reaching the projected 42-boat minimum, the force will increase to 66 by 2048.

Stephen Singer can be reached at ssinger@courant.com.

©2019 The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.)
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