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Submarine supplier mishaps lead to call for hearing

Following a series of high-profile mishaps involving Navy submarine suppliers — the latest having to do with subpar steel used to make submarine hulls — U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney said Tuesday he will be calling for a congressional hearing to examine whether more oversight is needed.

On Monday, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that it had reached a $10.9 million agreement with Bradken Inc., the Navy’s leading supplier of high-yield steel for submarines, to settle a lawsuit accusing the company of producing and selling “substandard” steel castings that were then installed on U.S. Navy submarines for decades.

Nearly half of the settlement money is going to the Navy to offset the costs associated with “reinspecting and checking” the castings that were falsified, Courtney said.

“The Navy has gone and checked the castings that they knew the records were falsified. At this point, using stress testing and other forms of testing, the castings are within acceptable range of tolerance for being seaworthy,” Courtney said.

The government has not disclosed which submarines were affected or how many.

Under a deferred prosecution agreement, Bradken took responsibility for the offense and agreed to take remedial measures, including creating new positions devoted to oversight of lab testing and tracking, and publishing a detailed account of its missteps in the trade publication Casteel Reporter. If the company complies with the agreement, the government will dismiss the charge after three years.

The company and its former director of metallurgy, 66-year-old Elaine Thomas of Auburn, Wash., a longtime employee who is accused of falsifying lab results to show the steel met the Navy’s requirements for strength and toughness when it did not, are also being charged criminally for major fraud against the U.S.

“The weakness always go back to paperwork,” Courtney said, which, he added, has implications for taxpayers but, more importantly, the lives of sailors.

Courtney is chairman of the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, which has oversight of Navy shipbuilding programs, and said he would be talking with the ranking Republican on the subcommittee, Rep. Rob Wittman of Virginia, about scheduling a hearing in the near future to “flesh out” the quality control issues.

He pointed to the Department of Justice investigation of another Navy supplier, Nuflo, a defense contractor based in Jacksonville, Fla., after it was discovered in 2016 that elbow pipes supplied by the company that were installed on three Navy submarines had shoddy welds.

In 2018, BWX Technologies Inc., headquartered in Virginia, which manufactures missile tubes for submarines, discovered a problem with its process for using ultrasonic equipment to inspect the welds. As a result, the company paid $27 million to fix the weld and improve its inspection and training protocols.

Often these suppliers are the Navy’s only option — another issue Courtney said he hopes to address at the hearing.

“We are dangerously reliant on sole source companies,” he said, adding that Bradken is “pretty much” the sole supplier of steel castings for the Navy.

“Aside from the cost factor, you really lose your leverage because you’re limited in terms of no market,” he said.

 j.bergman@theday.com

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