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Groton - The fate of Electric Boat depends on the design and construction of a new class of ballistic-missile submarines, EB's new president says.
"I would say it is the future of EB," Kevin J. Poitras said in an interview last week.
Usually EB's Virginia-class submarine program is in the spotlight, whether it's because Navy officials are praising it for being on time and under budget or members of Congress are trying to keep it on track despite the fiscal climate.
But inside EB's New London offices, most designers and engineers are focused on creating the ballistic-missile submarine that will replace the Ohio-class. It's the first new design of a ballistic-missile submarine in 40 years.
"The Ohio-class replacement is the next really big opportunity for EB," Loren B. Thompson, chief operating officer at the Lexington Institute, a nonprofit think tank, said last week. "Virginia-class construction will continue, but in terms of the design team and the engineers, the future is all about designing a replacement for the Ohio class."
About two-thirds of the company's business today is building Virginia-class attack submarines. But when EB starts manufacturing the class of 12 ballistic-missile submarines, building each one, by sheer weight, will be akin to building three attack submarines.
"It's three times the weight and almost three times the ship to build. That's a significant effort for us," said Poitras, who has led EB since May.
He predicted the company eventually will need several thousand more employees to do it.
The Pentagon has recommended delaying the start of construction on the ballistic-missile sub from 2019 to 2021. When construction begins, and EB is at the same time building two Virginia-class submarines a year with Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia, the shipyard could need as many as 16,000 people in Groton and at its Quonset Point manufacturing facility, Poitras said. EB currently employs about 11,400 people.
The shipyard most likely wouldn't have bought New London property from Pfizer two years ago if the Navy didn't want a new ballistic-missile submarine, and would need only about half of the 4,500 designers and engineers it employs, Poitras said.
"There's no question EB is growing right now and will grow because of the Ohio replacement program," U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, said. "And Kevin is the maestro of the program."
'Time went by fast'
Given Poitras' experience with the Ohio-class replacement program, it came as little surprise to many at EB and in the Navy that he was chosen to succeed John P. Casey when Casey left New London to become executive vice president of General Dynamics' Marine Systems group.
Poitras was then senior vice president of engineering, design and business development at EB. He oversaw design and engineering projects, including the Ohio-class replacement.
"This is a time when you want an engineer running the place rather than a manufacturing guru," Thompson said, "because the Ohio replacement is going to be about development for the next decade, rather than about production."
Poitras, 61, has worked at EB for nearly 40 years. He grew up north of Boston in Haverhill, Mass., and graduated from the Maine Maritime Academy. He said he wanted to go to sea as a merchant mariner but there weren't many ships to work on because of the Vietnam War. After driving by Electric Boat one day, he decided to apply.
"I said, 'I'll stay here a couple of years and when shipping straightens out, I'll go out,'" Poitras said. "Time went by fast."
He worked on ship overhaul and repair projects as an engineer, went into the yard when EB started building Los Angeles-class submarines, and continued to move up in the engineering and operations departments. The ballistic-missile submarine will be the fourth new ship design (including an aircraft carrier) he has helped advance to production.
The work on the new sub is regenerating critical design skills at EB and in the industrial base.
The Virginia-class design was 43 percent complete at the start of construction, Poitras said. Today, designers and engineers aim to complete 70 percent of the ballistic-missile sub's design by the start of construction to lower the lead ship's cost, which is currently estimated at $11.7 billion, including design.
After the first, the rest of the class is estimated to cost $6 billion per boat, which the Navy wants to reduce to $5 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The Navy estimates that building the 12 submarines will cost $78 billion.
'Bullish' on EB's future
For now, Poitras said his main priority is completing the transition from one Virginia-class submarine to two annually, while continuing to improve them.
"I don't want to take my eye off the ball, so to speak," he said.
The Congressional Budget Office has suggested that the Navy could buy three attack submarines annually for many of the years between 2014 and 2023 to prevent a shortfall in the fleet. Poitras said meeting such a request would be "within the capabilities here, certainly," since EB and Newport News each would build half of the additional submarine.
The company faces a lull in its workload from October through January, but Poitras expects to hire about 250 people for the trades in Groton for 2013. He said it has been a few years since there were that many openings in the trades.
Courtney said when it comes to the future of EB, he's "bullish."
"The Virginia-class program is a keeper. It's going to be two subs a year for the rest of this decade and, I think, beyond," he said. "Then you've got what I think is the next big thing in the Navy, the Ohio replacement program, and EB is going to be right in the center of it."
Sequestration - automatic spending cuts scheduled for Jan. 1 unless Congress acts - is a potential wrench in the plans.
Poitras said EB may not be as vulnerable as others because of the contracts it has in place, and he is not preparing any layoff notices. But, he said, he is constantly watching the situation since one Virginia-class submarine could be canceled if the cuts are made.
Despite the uncertainties about the federal budget, Poitras said, support for submarine programs within the Department of Defense and Congress is at a high point. He seemed optimistic, not only because of the projects on the horizon but also because of the people working on them.
"Part of the fabric of the company is the people," he said. "There are a lot of people like me that came here, liked the people, liked the work. It's very rewarding. It gives you the opportunity to move around if you want to. You get up in the morning and you want to go work. You enjoy what you do and you enjoy the people you work with. I think you'll find that a lot around here."