EB asks its suppliers to plan for growth

With more work coming down the pipeline, Electric Boat is asking its suppliers in Connecticut and across the country to generate their own plans to support the growth in submarine construction.

Hundreds of members of the Submarine Industrial Base Council gathered in Washington last week, the largest turnout ever, to receive briefings on the Navy’s submarine programs and to hear what will be needed from them in the coming years. 

The Navy reiterated its current acquisition plans to build two Virginia-class attack submarines a year except in years when a Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine is built, when the Virginia build rate goes down to one. But Navy officials also discussed a number of ongoing evaluations looking at how construction could be increased to meet the new demand for 66 attack submarines.

Late last year, the Navy unveiled a 355-ship proposal, including building 18 more attack submarines than it has now. That would mean an additional $3.5 billion to $4 billion annually in shipbuilding costs alone, according to a study by the Congressional Research Service.

EB and the Navy are already in discussions about what would need to happen on a “holistic” level to execute that plan, said Will Lennon, EB’s vice president for the Columbia-class program.

What would simultaneous work on two, maybe even three, Virginia-class attack submarines and one Columbia-class submarine look like? How many people would be needed to execute that level of work? What would be needed from the industrial base? These are some of the questions that EB and the Navy are seeking to answer, according to Lennon.

“We want to get them thinking about that,” Lennon said, of the submarine industrial base, so that those businesses can ready themselves.

EB has about 450 suppliers in Connecticut alone. One of them is Prime Technology LLC in North Branford, which has worked with EB for at least 30 years.

Keith Macdowall, vice president of the company, said it manufactures measurement display indications, which he compared to the dashboard of a car.

To handle the increased workload, Prime Technology is planning to hire two engineers and 10 manufacturers, a big deal, Macdowall pointed out, for a small business with 38 employees.

“These are not regular jobs,” he said. “These are highly skilled manufacture jobs. They are $60,000 to $80,000 jobs.”

Training these new employees will be a challenge, he said, as will getting materials, which are highly specialized, in the quantity and at the pace that will be needed.

Macdowall, who is the co-chairman of the Submarine Industrial Base Council, attributed the big turnout this year for last week's Supplier Days event in Washington to the increase in spending and building of submarines since the start of two-a-year production rate of Virginia-class submarines several years ago.

EB’s suppliers are responding to the anticipated growth in a variety of ways, said EB's Lennon. Those who are involved with the 241 missile tubes that will be distributed across the 12 Columbia-class submarines, which the Navy intends to build, are already prepping for that work. Others are more in the planning stages recognizing the growth for them won’t happen for a couple of years, Lennon said.

For EB’s part, the company is in the midst of a major hiring spree and is working to complete a facilities master plan that includes a proposal to construct a new final assembly site down in the south yard of its Groton property where the Columbia-class submarines would be built.

As for President Donald Trump’s proposal to increase defense spending by $54 billion, “everybody is very curious” Lennon said.

At a dinner, attended by members of the Submarine Industrial Council, on the same night as Trump’s joint address to Congress, “everyone wanted to get out before 9 p.m. to listen to the president,” Lennon said.

While Trump, in his address, did not provide specifics of how he would build up the military, those in the submarine business are “generally upbeat about the prospects,” Lennon said.

So far, the only detail the president has provided is that he wants to build 12 new aircraft carriers. He will submit a more detailed budget proposal in the middle of this month.

But Trump has talked about making big cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency, reportedly reducing its staff by 20 percent, and slashing funding for the State Department and foreign aid to pay for the increase in defense spending.

“I have no doubt leaders at the Pentagon will find ways to spend another $50 billion, but I maintain my conviction that a new strategy must come first, then the military services should figure out how much it will cost to execute that strategy, a strategy that is not necessarily budget constrained, but grounded in reality and budget informed,” Ryan Alexander, president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, said in an online post responding to the president’s proposal.

The $54 billion increase would not be enough for the Navy to increase ship construction all at once, particularly in light of the fact that the Navy and other military services are struggling with readiness issues, said Bryan Clark, a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

Addressing readiness is a top priority of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, so it’s likely that a good portion of any increase in funding for the Navy would go toward that, Clark said.

Clark justified the need for 18 more attack submarines, describing how the U.S. faces a very different set of security challenges today given improved military capabilities by Russia and China.

There’s a big demand for the intelligence gathering and coordination of special operations forces where the U.S. doesn’t want to have a visible presence, he said.

That drives the number of submarines up, Clark said, explaining that four and a half submarines are needed to maintain one submarine deployed overseas when factoring in maintenance, training and the distance that these nuclear-powered submarines travel.

j.bergman@theday.com

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