Navy sub firepower upgrade delayed by welding flaws

The Virginia-class fast-attack submarine USS Indiana transits the Thames River as it arrives at its new homeport at Naval Submarine Base New London in Groton, Conn., on Oct. 29, 2018.


By TONY CAPACCIO | Bloomberg | Published: August 13, 2019

Welding flaws by subcontractor BWX Technologies Inc. are delaying delivery of the first missile tubes for a U.S. Navy submarine weapons upgrade by at least seven months, according to the service.

The delay to fix the problem is a setback for plans to increase the firepower for the next version of the Virginia Class submarine by equipping it with four new large-diameter tubes. Each tube can hold seven Tomahawk cruise missiles, increasing the number of weapons the submarine can carry to 65 from 37 on current vessels, according to the Congressional Research Service.

The Navy is under pressure to increase the number and range of weapons in its submarine fleet to counter the expanding lethality of the Russian and Chinese navies. Bottlenecks like the welding problem add to pressure on the Navy and its contractors as they work to accelerate production of the next Virginia submarines -- known as Block V -- while also starting construction on the new Columbia class in 2021.

The Navy and shipbuilders must "manage staffing demands and other resources across both programs," the U.S. Government Accountability Office said in a May report.

BWX Technologies is under contract to produce and deliver three of four tubes to prime contractor General Dynamics Corp., which is building the submarine. BAE Systems is slated to produce the fourth tube for the initial "Virginia Payload Module" and remaining tubes for succeeding Block V submarines.

The previously undisclosed seven-month delay by Lynchburg, Virginia-based BWX was due to "substandard welding" and "improperly administered" testing, the Naval Sea Systems Command said a statement.

"The delay in tube delivery does not equate" to a delay in ship delivery, the Navy said in a statement.

The Virginia Payload Module and its four additional tubes will extend the submarine's hull by 84 feet. The welding flaws were similar to those the company acknowledged last year for missile tubes that will go on the new Columbia-class submarines. Those continue to be repaired.

The U.S. shipbuilding base "has diminished significantly since previous major submarine construction in the 1980s" even as it "will be faced with higher demands of supplying components for use on both submarines," according to Shelby Oakley, a GAO director who monitors Navy shipbuilding.

As shipbuilders "plan to increase the hiring and training of skilled workers" they "must also ensure that its suppliers — who will face similar challenges — can produce and deliver high-quality components," she said.

Before the welding flaws were discovered last year, BWX was contractually required to deliver the large-sized tubes to General Dynamics in October, January and April. Those dates are now projected for May, June and July 2020, the Navy said.

BWX Chief Executive Officer Rex Geveden told analysts last week on an earnings call that "the team is also performing well on missile tube repairs. We have completed all repairs on the Virginia payload module tubes and are about halfway through" the welding rework on the Columbia tubes.

"We understand our customers' rigorous standards for success and are committed to delivering products and services of the highest quality," BWX spokesman Christopher Dumond said in a statement.

Elizabeth Power, a spokeswoman for General Dynamics' Electric Boat unit, said in a statement that "we are working with both tube suppliers to preserve fabrication schedules."