WASHINGTON — General Dynamics Electric Boat is just weeks from delivering attack submarine Oregon to the Navy, about 16 months after Oregon was originally due and nearly two years after the Connecticut shipyard delivered its last submarine.
This Block IV Virginia-class attack submarine has suffered from a complex web of factors, some related to the COVID-19 pandemic now entering its third year, but most related to the prioritization of the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine program, Electric Boat President Kevin Graney said in an update on the yard’s performance.
On the workforce side, he said, the Columbia program — not just a top priority for the shipyard, but also for the Navy and the Pentagon — is “staffed up to where we need to be right now” to keep the first-in-class Columbia on track for a 2027 delivery and 2030 maiden deployment. But that’s come at the expense of the Virginia program production line.
“To achieve Columbia, we did take some resources from Virginia to support that. And I think at this point right now, any new folks that we’re adding to the business ... will be largely dedicated to Virginia. And that’s because that Columbia manning right now is fairly stable and will be for the foreseeable future,” Graney said in a Jan. 24 virtual event hosted by the shipyard.
As a result, that means the newest and least experienced workers are being assigned to the Virginia SSN production line, and any shortfalls in manning are expected to solely affect SSNs. Graney said the training pipeline was halted in early 2020 due to COVID but was restarted in late 2020 and continued to produce new shipbuilders throughout 2021.
Still, like the rest of the labor market, Graney said Electric Boat is seeing higher attrition and a tougher time hiring. While not unique to the shipyard, those conditions are disproportionately affecting Virginia SSN construction.
Submarine Oregon was originally meant to deliver in the fall of 2020, but the delivery date continued to slip. With people and materials prioritized to Columbia, Oregon had material challenges and a higher re-work rate, Graney said.
Oregon went out for sea trials in December, and Graney said the boat’s propulsion system was “flawless.” There are some “relatively small items” that remain to be addressed elsewhere on the boat, he added, but by the end of the week the submarine should be back out to sea for its final trials with the Navy’s Board of Inspection and Survey.
“Once that completes, we are fast-tracked to get to delivery — I think the timeline generally from INSURV to delivery is about a week, so we are poised to get that boat delivered, and I think USS Montana will be right on her heels,” Graney said.
Electric Boat and Huntington Ingalls Industries’ Newport News Shipbuilding each build portions of the submarines and alternate which yard conducts final assembly and delivery. Montana is going through this process at Newport News.
Graney said a second submarine, the Hyman G. Rickover, is also on track for delivery from Electric Boat this year. This would come after an extended pause in submarine deliveries: Vermont delivered in April 2020, with Oregon next in line and on track for a February 2022 delivery.
Though not a primary factor on Oregon, Graney noted COVID has caused some challenges for the yard and its workforce.
The workforce is now 86% vaccinated, a figure it reached through incentives rather than mandates, Graney said. Still, the omicron variant of the virus led to a surge in COVID case numbers that hit the New England area earliest in the U.S. In the eight weeks since Thanksgiving, Electric Boat has seen its highest case count of the whole pandemic, according to Graney. In fact, 42% of all reported cases among employees have happened just in these last eight weeks.
“How that hits us, especially coming off of the holiday shutdown that we do between Christmas and new year, we ended up with a lot of people unable to come in because of the protocols associated with COVID. And, unfortunately, it hit our senior ranks — that is, our leadership ranks, supervisors, first-line supervisors and above — disproportionately relative to the rank and file. So, hard to lead a crew of people when your leader’s ‘on the beach’ suffering from COVID,” Graney said.
“I think we’re getting better here with each passing week, each passing day … and I hope to be out of the woods here with regard to any additional impact from omicron in the coming week or two,” he added.
Despite these COVID challenges, the Columbia program remains ahead of schedule. Graney said Columbia is 15% complete, with pressure hull fabrication about 65% complete and deck fabrication 86% complete. Advanced construction work on the second ship in the class, Wisconsin, began last May despite construction not officially kicking off until March 2024, leading Graney to remain optimistic about the program meeting its all-important deadlines.
Still, the prospect of a full-year continuing resolution is the biggest threat to the Columbia program today — as it’s the one thing the yard can’t control or shield the production line from.
Rep. Joe Courtney, a Democrat who represents the district that includes Electric Boat, told Defense News after the event the Columbia program today is “basically a good news story” but that a full-year CR “would be poison.”
The Columbia program received $4.58 billion in funding in fiscal 2021, which is the funding level that would be carried over for another year in the event of a full-year CR. However, the Navy had asked for a bump-up to $5.06 billion, and Congress agreed to $5.2 billion in the FY22 National Defense Authorization Act.
In past years, the Navy has tried to shield the SSBN program from continuing resolutions by asking Congress for “anomalies,” or permission to sign new contracts and spend new money despite the restrictions of the CR. Courtney said there are so many moving pieces to the program right now — from the submarine itself to expansion at Electric Boat to measures to strengthen the supply base — that papering over with a series of anomalies this year would be too hard.
“We protected the program from CRs in the past with anomalies, but if we can’t work out an omnibus [spending package to cover all the FY22 federal spending bills], I have a dread that the two sides are going to just lock in to insisting on an across-the-board CR [without allowing anomalies] if they don’t feel the other side is compromising enough,” Courtney said.
Specifically, he said, the NDAA included money to start building a new manufacturing facility at Electric Boat that would increase the yard’s output. If the submarine industrial base wants to build three Virginia subs in one year — something included in most future shipbuilding plans, but so far elusive for an industrial base struggling to build two SSNs a year alongside the Columbia program — that facility will be necessary, Courtney said.
He said he talked to House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Rep. Rosa DeLauro, another Connecticut Democrat, and “Chairwoman DeLauro has made it clear that the NDAA topline is not going to be a contested issue in the negotiations.”
The NDAA includes a $24-billion plus-up above the topline the Biden administration requested for defense spending. Courtney said this makes him optimistic House and Senate appropriators could reach an agreement on defense spending that resembles the plan in the NDAA, but added he’s worried non-defense issues will prevent them from passing any spending bills this year.
DeLauro told him she hopes to wrap up work on the FY22 spending plan by Feb. 12, which Courtney said is “a tall order, but at least they’re talking.” House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi told Democrats that wrapping up the FY22 spending bills was the top priority next week once lawmakers return to Capitol Hill, he added.
Depending on what comes of these talks, Courtney said the Navy and the submarine industrial base have one more tool in the toolbox to help keep submarine design and construction work on track: a pre-authorization of sorts from the White House to use Defense Production Act authorities to strengthen the submarine industrial base. The DPA memo specifically calls out the Virginia SSN program, noting “[e]nsuring a robust, resilient, and competitive domestic defense industrial base that has the capability, capacity, and workforce to meet the Virginia Class submarine undersea warfighting mission is essential to our national security” — but the entire submarine construction enterprise would benefit from these investments.
The Navy has not formally asked for specific dollar amounts for specific projects, but the White House pre-approved the DPA authorities in case the Navy wants to use this lever. This is the reverse of how the process typically works, where the services request DPA money from the Defense Department and DoD approves projects and then seeks authorization from the White House.
Courtney said there’s still an element of “wait and see” in terms of if and how the Navy will ask to use this authority, based on what it needs after the FY22 budget shakes out. But he said Graney’s description of the submarine industrial base as brittle “is something that keeps people awake at night, and certainly the department is acutely aware of it.”
The ability to “have that tool on standby” is a relief, he said, adding that he hopes — if it’s executed — the DPA authorities would be used to address the remaining sole-source suppliers in the submarine supply chain and either strengthen those companies or help establish second sources for important components.
Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.