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USS North Dakota in home stretch

By Jennifer McDermott

Publication: The Day

Published November 01. 2013 4:00AM
Sean D. Elliot/The Day
On Saturday, about 4,000 people will descend on Electric Boat to see the North Dakota (SSN 784), shown above in a graving dock at the Groton shipyard in September, christened as the 11th member of the Virginia class.
Saturday ceremony to christen Virginia-class ship; EB set to deliver submarine in record 59 months

Wrenches and drills in hand, Electric Boat employees hustled through the berthing areas of the newest Virginia-class submarine last week, putting the finishing touches on the racks so the crew can move in.

Others hunched over monitors in the command and control room, checking the equipment and upgraded software on the North Dakota while machinists and electricians climbed on torpedo tubes to get them ready for testing. The smell of paint hung in the air.

And outside in the graving dock, workers removed the fixtures they had built to paint the hull.

On Saturday, about 4,000 people will descend on the Groton shipyard to see the North Dakota (SSN 784) christened as the 11th member of the Virginia class. The ship's sponsor, Katie Fowler, will smash a bottle of Champagne over the hull in a tradition said to impart her personality onto the ship. Vice Adm. Michael J. Connor, submarine force commander, will be the keynote speaker.

The ceremony itself, however, will be only a brief respite from the breakneck pace of the work.

Michael Nowak, ship manager for the North Dakota, said his team of nearly 700 people is working day and night to get the ship ready for what happens after the christening - sea trials.

The submarine is now about 94 percent complete.

"We're almost there," Cmdr. Douglas Gordon, commanding officer of the North Dakota, said. "We've still got some work to do, but we're getting close."

If the tests at sea can be done before Christmas and there are no major issues, EB will deliver the North Dakota to the Navy in January after 59 months of construction, which would be the shortest construction period yet for a Virginia-class submarine.

A February delivery also would accomplish the goal for which EB has been striving, to cut the construction time for each submarine to 60 months. EB was not expected to reach that milestone until it built the 15th member of the class, the Colorado.

"The work of the more than a thousand shipyard craftsmen and engineers who built this boat has helped make the fleet stronger and our nation safer," Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus said in a statement. "Their dedication and expertise has the world's most advanced submarine on track to deliver in early 2014, giving the North Dakota the shortest construction span of any Virginia-class submarine to date."

Rear Adm. David C. Johnson, the program executive officer for submarines, said an early delivery for the North Dakota would be "an amazing accomplishment" since 20 percent of the submarine's design was changed to save money.

"It shows how well Electric Boat and Newport News worked together on that, and it shows that we got the redesigns right because it did actually make the ship easier to build," he said in an interview.

'2 for 4 in 12'

The North Dakota is the first in the third block of eight Virginia-class submarines the Navy is ordering. It is the first to have a redesigned bow with a new sonar array and two larger payload tubes instead of 12 individual vertical launch missile tubes. The design was simplified to save about $100 million per submarine, said Kurt A. Hesch, EB's vice president who manages the Virginia-class program.

Historically, he said, EB has changed submarine designs to add capabilities, rather than to cut costs, and the first submarine with changes would take longer to build and would cost more. The challenge with the North Dakota, Hesch said, was "breaking that paradigm."

"One of the reasons this boat is so important for us to be where we are, to be a little better than expected, is because that sets up the rest of block," he said.

The Navy began buying two submarines a year in 2011 on the condition that EB would reduce the cost, so two boats could be purchased in fiscal 2012 for a total cost of $4 billion in fiscal 2005 dollars, which is often referred to as "2 for 4 in 12." The target cost for each submarine translates is about $2.6 billion for a boat procured in the 2012 fiscal year.

EB previously delivered the USS Mississippi to the Navy in 62 months. Its shipbuilding teammate, Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia, built the USS Minnesota in 63 months.

U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, said EB's performance is the most powerful argument for Congress' continued support of the program.

"It just eclipses all of the potential obstacles to getting funding for two submarines a year, because it's a program where its performance, not its hype, is demonstrating that it's a really solid investment for the American taxpayer," he said.

Hesch said EB must continue to improve on its past performance, especially now that the Defense Department budget is shrinking.

The company understands the value of these submarines to the Navy, Hesch said. The number of attack submarines in the fleet is dropping as the older, Los Angeles-class ships are retired more quickly than they are replaced. Reducing the construction time to 60 months will increase the size of the attack-submarine force by two boats, so the number in the fleet will reach a low of 42 instead of 40, according to a September report from the Congressional Research Service. The stated requirement is 48.

The North Dakota will join the fleet and officially will become the USS North Dakota when it is commissioned in May in Groton.

'The cat's meow'

Lt. Cmdr. Kristopher A. Lancaster, the executive officer, said he tells the crew of 138 men that every day is a day closer to being underway.

About half of the sailors have never been to sea on a submarine. Only 16 of the more senior personnel have served on a Virginia-class ship.

"It's a long journey for us to make sure that we're ready to go to sea and take the ship safely to sea," Gordon said.

The crew is currently training and earning its qualifications to prepare for operating the submarine during sea trials. Crew members will move into the submarine around Thanksgiving.

Master Chief Timothy A. Preabt, chief of the boat, is the only crew member from North Dakota.

About 100 people from North Dakota are expected to attend the christening. Fowler, the ship's sponsor, is the wife of retired Vice Adm. Jeffrey Fowler, a North Dakota native.

"There are a lot of people who have a lot of pride in our service back there," Preabt said. "The North Dakota National Guard, people stand behind them. It's good to see that they're getting involved and supporting the Navy."

Bob Wefald, a North Dakota resident who is president of the USS North Dakota Committee, said the people of his home state are enthusiastic and very supportive of their submarine.

"We think this is really great that we've got this ship named after us," he said. "It will be the most modern and advanced ship in the world when it is commissioned. This is just the cat's meow."

Gordon, who will be promoted to captain today, said the submarine has come together in almost "a blink of an eye."

"I can't believe I've been here for almost two years," he said. "To see it come to life is pretty phenomenal."

j.mcdermott@theday.com

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