Navy says submarine industrial base can support increase in production
A recent Navy report has concluded that there's sufficient capacity within the industrial base to support an increase in production of Virginia-class submarines.
The report is a testament to how much the Navy's confidence in the submarine industrial base has grown, said U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, who authored the legislative language asking for the report.
Initially, Navy plans called for building one Virginia-class attack submarine in the years when the new Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines would be built. The Navy added an additional Virginia-class submarine in fiscal year 2021 when construction is expected to start on the first Columbia submarine. And now there are proposals to continue the two-per-year build rate of Virginias in the years throughout the construction of the 12 planned Columbia submarines.
"Up until very recently, the Navy had been very cautious about embracing more than one Virginia submarine a year in the Columbia-class years. This is now in black and white, their confidence level in the industrial base has grown," Courtney said.
The report outlines the concerns with an increase in production as shipbuilder facilities, workforce readiness and the capacity and capability of the supply base. The major challenge, it says, will be the cost to produce additional attack submarines, which cost $2.7 billion each.
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said he sees the major challenge as skill training and workforce preparation.
"It has always been and it will continue to be a major sticking point in this plan," Blumenthal said. "The facilities can be constructed. The management can be recruited but the designers and engineers and welders and all of the skilled workers need to be trained and enlisted."
The report comes on the heels of two defense policy bills in the Senate and House that would authorize the building of three attack submarines in some years.
"It's all adding momentum to Congress and the Navy now being on same page as far as boosting production," Courtney said.
Officials from Electric Boat and Newport News Shipbuilding, the two private shipyards that build U.S. submarines, have been asking suppliers such as LC Doane Co. in Ivoryton about their capacity. The company makes lighting fixtures for submarines and surface ships.
"The facility we have here is large enough to support more shipbuilding," said Steve Shapiro, vice president for sales and marketing. "Our sub tier suppliers also have to be prepared for growth so we have to put them on notice and make sure they are ready."
The report says that improved communications between the shipbuilders and suppliers on future demand and schedules will allow the supplier base to optimize operations, plan investments, mitigate risk and potentially reduce costs. It also notes that "proactive management" of all suppliers is essential to ensure products and materials are received on time.
Of all the ship classes, submarines have the fewest lighting fixtures, Shapiro said, so while a ramp-up in submarine production doesn't necessarily translate to LC Doane hiring more employees, "it certainly helps us sustain people."
Many suppliers still have a "hangover" from the dip in submarine production following the Cold War, which inhibited investment and hiring decisions, Courtney said, and were initially wary of the buildup.
Strong congressional support in the form of defense bills helps convince the supply base that "there's a long game," Courtney added.
Federal lawmakers are expected to vote on the House and Senate defense policy bills this week.