Navy: More Submarine Work Coming to Newport News Shipyard

The Virginia-class attack submarine Minnesota (SSN 783) is under construction at Huntington Ingalls Newport News Shipbuilding. (U.S. Navy photo courtesy of Newport News Shipbuilding)
The Virginia-class attack submarine Minnesota (SSN 783) is under construction at Huntington Ingalls Newport News Shipbuilding. (U.S. Navy photo courtesy of Newport News Shipbuilding)

The Navy's plan for a new fleet of ballistic missile submarines calls for Newport News Shipbuilding to do roughly one-fifth of the work and assume greater responsibility in the ongoing Virginia-class sub program.

As expected, the Navy has selected General Dynamics Electric Boat of Groton, Conn., as the prime contractor to build the 12 submarines, which will replace the aging Ohio-class boats. The announcement, issued late Monday, was not a formal contract award, but what the Navy calls a Submarine Unified Build Strategy that sets out general parameters of an agreement.

Ballistic missile submarines are the undersea portion of America's nuclear triad, complementing long-range bombers and land-based missiles. Because the Ohio-class boats are nearing the end of their service life, replacing them is the Navy's top priority. The new submarines don't yet have a name, so it is simply known as the Ohio Replacement Program.

National security aside, it also means additional work for the Newport News shipyard, a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries and Virginia's largest industrial employer.

Newport News will perform 22 percent to 23 percent of the work on the new submarines as a subcontractor, according to the announcement, which came from the office of Sean Stackley, assistant Navy secretary for research, acquisition and development. Newport News will assist in designing the new subs and construct major components, the statement adds.

The Virginia-class submarine John Warner completed initial sea trials on Saturday, May 16, 2015, according to a news release from Newport News Shipbuilding. All systems, components and compartments were tested. The submarine also submerged for the first time and operated at high speeds on the surface and underwater.

Meanwhile, Newport News and Electric Boat will continue to build the smaller Virginia-class attack submarines in a teaming arrangement. Workers at each yard build components of the subs, then alternate in final assembly and delivery to the Navy.

Newport News will be called upon to deliver additional Virginia-class submarines once the Ohio replacement program is up and running, according to the Navy's statement.

It is unclear how many additional deliveries will occur at Newport News or when that will happen.

"The Navy may adjust the workload and VCS (Virginia class submarine) deliveries based on cost and schedule performance parameters to minimize any effects on delivery of OR and VCS submarines," Stackley's statement reads.

Both shipbuilders have agreed to this build strategy, said the Navy.

The first Ohio-class replacement sub is due to be ordered in 2021. The Navy's current plan is to build one new sub each year starting in the mid-2020s. Each boat will cost about $5 billion. The first boat will be more expensive because it will include research and design funding for the entire class.

Christie Miller, a Newport News shipyard spokeswoman, said details of additional work with the Virginia-class program are still being worked out.

"We are pleased to be a significant design and manufacturing participant in the Ohio Replacement Program and take on a larger role in Virginia-class deliveries with our partners at Electric Boat," she said. "With this commitment from the Navy, we are making significant investment in our facilities and our workforce to support construction of both the Virginia-class and Ohio replacement programs."

The Navy's plan was well received in Connecticut, where Rep. Joe Courtney goes to bat for Electric Boat as a member of the House Armed Services Committee. The Democratic lawmaker recently visited the Newport News shipyard.

"As the Navy indicates in their announcement, tackling the Ohio Replacement will require close coordination between Congress, the Navy and industry," he said.

Courtney is the top Democrat on the House Armed Services sea power panel. It is chaired by Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Chesapeake, who also lauded the announcement.

"The workload split on Ohio Replacement and the decision to deliver moreVirginiasin Hampton Roads represent big wins for the region that our shipbuilders should be proud of," Forbes said.

Electric Boat and Newport News are the only two U.S. shipyards that build nuclear-powered submarines for the Navy. Part of the strategy behind the Navy's plan is to continue to maintain two shipyards with that capability.

In recent testimony before Congress, Navy leaders have expressed concern about maintaining their undersea advantage against adversaries such as Russia and China. Current production of Virginia-class subs stands at two per year.

The plan calls for only one Virginia class boat in 2021, when the Navy orders its first Ohio-class replacement. But Navy leaders have already said they want to change that and fund two Virginia class subs that year.

Courtney said it's his understanding that the Navy intends to keep Virginia-class production at two per year through at least 2023.

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