US Navy submarine program loses some of its shine

WASHINGTON — The luster is off a bit for the Virginia-class submarine building program, long considered a model US Navy construction effort that routinely brings down the building time and cost for each successive sub. One submarine has just missed its contract delivery date — pushed back even more when sea trials were halted to return to port — and shipbuilders are working harder to keep construction on schedule.

The problems come at a time when there is widespread support to continue building two Virginia-class submarines per year even when the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines begin construction — when the Navy plans to go to three submarines each year.

Problems seem to stem from two primary factors: the move in 2011 to double the submarine construction rate from one to two per year has strained shipyards and the industrial base that supplies parts for the subs; and the Navy has successively reduced contractual building times as shipbuilders grew more experienced with building the submarines, cutting back on earlier, highly-trumpeted opportunities to beat deadlines.

The situation seemingly came to a head March 2 shortly after the submarine Washington began its initial sea trials off the Virginia coast. The submarine, fitting out at Huntington Ingalls Newport News Shipbuilding, has been falling behind schedule for some time, missing a targeted summer 2016 delivery date and a scheduled Jan. 7 commissioning ceremony. More delays ensued in January when, according to the Navy, a problem was found with the hatch seating surface in the large lockout trunk access hatch, requiring a notice to Congress that the ship would miss its Feb. 28 contract delivery date and a rescheduled March 25 commissioning date.

It’s not the first time a Virginia-class submarine has missed a contract delivery date. The first two subs were late, and in late 2007 the North Carolina, the third Virginia, was delivered by Newport News seven weeks late because of welding issues. But since then, every submarine delivered by Newport News and Virginia class prime contractor General Dynamics Electric Boat has been delivered by the contract date or more often,…

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