At Newport News Shipyard, More than 1,000 New Jobs Tied to Sub Program

Newport News Shipbuilding will ultimately add more than 1,000 jobs to help build a new fleet of ballistic missile submarines for the Navy, the company president said Tuesday.

Shipyard President Matt Mulherin said those jobs would be in addition to a planned hiring increase in 2017. His comments came during a media briefing at the Sea-Air-Space Exposition in National Harbor, Md.

The downtown shipyard is Virginia's largest industrial employer and an important part of the region's economy. But the shipyard has shed about 1,200 jobs since last year and could cut another 300 later this year, company officials have said. They have blamed the cuts on a temporary drop in work, partly because of budget gridlock from a few years ago.

The company, a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries, now has about 20,000 employees. It was as high as 23,000 in recent years.

The Navy's top priority is replacing its aging fleet of Ohio-class submarines, sometimes called boomers. The subs are armed with nuclear warheads and serve as the undersea leg of America's nuclear deterrent, complementing long-range bombers and land-based missiles. The new fleet doesn't yet have a name, so Navy leaders simply call it the Ohio Replacement Program, or ORP.

The Defense Department plans to order the first ORP boat in 2021. It will rely on the two yards that currently build the smaller, Virginia-class attack subs: Newport News and General Dynamics Electric Boat of Groton, Conn. The two yards each build major components of the subs, then alternate in assembling and delivering them to the Navy.

The Navy's build strategy names Electric Boat as the lead contractor for ORP. It will deliver all 12 boats in the new fleet. Newport News will play a supporting role and do about 20 percent of the work. It will also pick up a greater share of the Virginia class work during the life of ORP, delivering most of the Virginia class subs instead of alternating with Electric Boat.

Mulherin said ORP will build on experience gained in the Virginia-class program, which is largely considered a success in terms of meeting budgets and schedules. For example, Newport News will build the bow, stern, sail and superstructure of the ORP boats. That is similar to its role in the Virginia submarine program.

Photos from Newport News Shipbuilding christening ceremonies, including the submarine John Warner, carrier Gerald R. Ford and the Virginia-class submarine Washington.

In a separate briefing Tuesday, officials from Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) said Electric Boat will submit a detailed design proposal for ORP on Friday. Negotiations will take place during the summer, and NAVSEA should award a detail design contract in the fall, said Capt. David Goggins.

The first ORP sub is expected to be on patrol by late 2030, Goggins said. Meanwhile, the Navy is looking at buying materials common to both the Virginia and ORP subs to hold down costs.

The ORP boats will have six "super modules" compared to four for the smaller Virginia class subs. NAVSEA decided to give EB the job of delivering all 12 subs in that fleet to have "one learning curve" instead of two, Goggins said.

On March 20, 1926, Newport News Shipbuilding launched 9 vessels and laid the keels for 3 others in a landmark event marking its recovery from years of operating losses and a brutal post WWI shipbuilding depression that that drove drive more than 50 other major builders out of business.

Some in Congress have paid special attention to 2021, when construction on the first ORP boat is set to begin. That year, Virginia-class construction could be scaled back from two to one. However, Navy leaders have said they want to maintain the two-per year Virginia-class schedule even while building a fleet of larger, more expensive subs.

The Navy knows "with great confidence" that EB and Newport News can handle that workload — essentially three in one year, said Capt. Michael Stevens, a NAVSEA official. And it's important to keep up that tempo because the demand for submarines is increasing.

"We've got a good track record there with our two shipbuilders, and we've got to continue that," Stevens said.

The Navy learned a painful lesson when it cut back on submarine production some years ago, he added.

No day was more important to Newport News Shipbuilding than the March 24, 1898 launch of the battleships Kearsarge and Kentucky. Nearly 25,000 spectators gathered to see the double christening, which not only underscored the 12-year-old yard's growing shipbuilding capabilities but also cemented its new ambitions as a leading constructor of America's most powerful and important warships.

"We almost lost our industrial base to build submarines," he said. "It was really a dark time in history. Now we've recapitalized that ability to build submarines. It's something we never want to lose again."

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