ARLINGTON, Va. – The Navy and submarine builders General Dynamics Electric Boat and Newport News Shipbuilding are executing a recovery plan to get Block IV Virginia-class submarine production back on track, after the last five submarines in Block III delivered late.
The Virginia-class program had previously been held up as a model of efficient procurement, as the boats were delivering on-cost and on-schedule – or at times beating cost and schedule – and former Navy Secretary Ray Mabus grew to joke about the program as having a punch-card rewards program to get 10 subs for the price of nine. Delivery times also dropped from 84 months to 72 and then to 66, on their way down to 60 months for Block IV.
But as the program moved from building one a year to two a year, the subs stopped delivering on time.
“The way we build our submarines, there’s four super modules: two built at EB, two built at Newport News. From their module perspective, they have to deliver a module (one of each kind) every six months. And you look the entire fabrication, from the pipe shop to pre-fab to sub-modules to modules, when you’re at that cadence of two per year, every part of that assembly line must be on cadence. At the pre-fab, at the sub-module, the footprint, the people, the tools, the procedures. So what we learned is, if you get out of cadence in any part of that step, you’re going to impact final assembly and test. So that’s what happened,” Rear Adm. David Goggins, the program executive officer for submarines, said in response to a USNI News question during a question-and-answer session at the Naval Submarine League’s annual symposium.
“So the companies have put together a recovery plan. We have the metrics. And the key thing is getting back to cadence across the entire production line, from the pipe shop, pre-fab, sub-modules, modules and final assembly and test. Our plan has us getting back to cadence by the end of next year,” he said.
Speaking to USNI News after the event, Goggins said that Newport News Shipbuilding had expanded its footprint at its Virginia shipyard to try to keep up with the higher workload, which wouldn’t be sustainable in the long-run as the shipyard also begins work on the upcoming Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine program.
“At Newport News they expanded to additional footprint, and now the key thing is, over the next year and a half, through the end of next year, is getting those modules completed on schedule,” Goggins told USNI News.
“So by the end of next year, we’re back to cadence and using the planned footprint with the planned resources to go execute module deliveries.”
He said metrics are in place to ensure the company is on track to meet this goal. Asked if any significant hurdles remain, he said, “they need to go execute the plan. They have the people, they have the footprint, they have the tooling; they just have to go execute, which they’re doing today.”
Tom Plante, the director of strategic planning for Electric Boat, told USNI News during a September visit to the Connecticut shipyard that some of the vendors were unable to keep up with the faster pace of shipbuilding, either sending parts late or sending parts with deficiencies that had to be later ripped out of modules and replaced.
“We were challenged to meet our schedules in Block IV, and some of that is program execution, some of that is ripples caused by [continuing resolutions] and funding and plus-ups,” Plante said.
“If we get off that rhythm, if we get off that cadence, that causes these ripples, and it takes multiple ships to work through that. If you have a supply problem – non-conforming material comes in and I’ve got to stop, I’ve got to go assess, I’ve got to rip things out, I’ve got to re-do things – then that all adds time and cost to construction execution by shipbuilders.”
Goggins said Wednesday that it would be important to keep the recovery plan on track and get the Virginia production line under control so problems don’t spill over and affect the Columbia class of SSBNs.
“The key thing is getting back to cadence across the entire production line, and that is needed to ensure the success of the Columbia program, which is key,” the rear admiral said.
Despite the challenge keeping up with the faster delivery schedule, Goggins said the Virginia-class submarines have been delivering at ever-higher quality. The future Delaware (SSN-791) completed its sea trials on Oct. 10 and delivered on Oct. 25 and was the highest-quality sub delivered to date, according to the Board of Inspection and Survey (INSURV) report, Goggins said.
With the delivery of Delaware, 18 of a planned 48 Virginia class boats have delivered, including all Block III boats. The first Block IV boat, the future Vermont (SSN-792) will deliver later this year or early next year, and will be the first of the Block IV configuration that takes out a maintenance availability and adds a deployment over the life of the boat.
At the same time that quantities are increasing and the time to construct the boats is decreasing, the time from initial delivery to completion of testing and turnover to the fleet is also decreasing. Goggins said the Navy has gone from more than a year for testing and the post-shakedown availability to six months and is on the way down to about three to four months until the boat is ready for fleet tasking.
Looking forward to the Block V boats, which add acoustic superiority enhancements and the Virginia Payload Module for more missile tubes, Goggins could not say much. The Navy notified Congress that a contract award was pending in the next 30 days, but until the contract is officially awarded the Navy cannot speak publicly about it.
USNI News reported earlier this week that the contract would include nine submarines instead of 10, with an option for a tenth boat if the Navy and Congress choose to execute it.
Goggins did assure the industry representatives in the audience that the vendor base would not be hurt by the lower quantity in the contract.
“From a vendor base perspective, I will say that they have not been impacted. The vendor base has been provided the normal [economic order quantity], one-year advance procurement and two-year advance procurement for 10 submarines in a Block V contract,” he said.