Institute to help bulk up 'Silicon Valley of undersea warfare,' officials say
Former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel once called southeastern New England "the Silicon Valley of undersea warfare."
That vision is shared by the two major public universities in Connecticut and Rhode Island and submarine manufacturer Electric Boat, who have partnered to create a new institute that will develop a new generation of highly skilled naval engineers and accelerate research in the field of undersea technology.
The timing is right for the new National Institute for Undersea Vehicle Technology, headquartered at UConn's Avery Point campus in Groton, said Michael Accorsi, senior associate dean of UConn's School of Engineering, given the push to ramp up submarine production in the U.S.
"There's a lot of other places in the country that would like to be doing this work," Accorsi said. "It's really important that this region is top of the nation in undersea technology."
The Navy says it needs more attack submarines to maintain undersea dominance amid increased activity by the Chinese and Russians. Between attack submarines and a new fleet of ballistic-missile submarines, EB anticipates building 55 more subs in the next 20 years. The company is looking to hire 14,000 people in Connecticut and Rhode Island over the next 10 years to do that work.
Accorsi and the other architects behind the initiative also pointed to a synergy in the region with naval installations like Naval Station Newport and the Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Newport and the Naval Submarine Base and Undersea Warfighting Development Center in Groton. EB has facilities in both Connecticut and Rhode Island, and nearly 600 suppliers between the two states.
The initiative is creating a naval consortium, said Kylene A. Perras, director of strategic initiatives at UConn. The goal is to engage with industry earlier on, and also organize suppliers and help them become more effective in going after funding.
Connecticut is home to the majority of EB's suppliers, which received more than $500 million over the past five years. But EB's 218 suppliers in California, for example, received more than $6 billion over that same period.
"Why are Connecticut suppliers not bringing in more money?" Accorsi said.
Between UConn and URI, there's about $28 million of active research projects with naval application, according to Rich Christenson, a professor in UConn's Civil and Environmental Engineering Department and co-director of the new institute. The Navy is keen on accelerating the implementation of research into undersea technology, and the two research universities can help with that and work together with the industry on projects and proposals, officials say.
"This is also about turning students onto the idea that this is a real viable career path," Christenson said.
After making more than 3,000 new hires in 2017, EB has a total workforce of 16,200 employees, a number not seen in nearly 25 years. Over the past seven years, the company has hired 2,766 engineers alone. Demand for engineers around the state — not just at EB — is high as Connecticut's other defense contractors, including Pratt & Whitney and Sikorsky, also are experiencing growth. President Donald Trump continually has called for a military buildup, but questions remain about how that will pan out.
Both Connecticut and Rhode Island have set up workforce development programs to turn out high-skilled workers for EB, and the new institute also is expected to help in this regard.
"The companies, if you talk to them, have seen that when you recruit regionally, you get better retention," Accorsi said. "So that's motivation for them to hire regionally."
The engineering school at UConn has grown by about 60 percent in five years, according to Accorsi, and there's high demand for those graduates.
This semester, about 35 students at UConn and URI, respectively, started taking seminar courses as part of the concentration in undersea engineering. They'll hear from key stakeholders in the naval industry, and do research into topics such as acoustics and sensors and unmanned underwater vehicles.