Adm. James Caldwell, the top nuclear-navy man, had reassuring words for the nuclear shipbuilding industry and its suppliers on Thursday during a banquet speech at the Nuclear Naval Submarine League’s annual symposium.
“I … want you to know that contrary to what you might read or hear, … submarine force leadership values our close, enduring relationships with our industry partners,” Caldwell said from the podium. “We’re not going to get it done without you. We need to be tightly connected.”
Caldwell’s speech capped two days of high-level talks during the annual gathering of senior Navy officers, former submariners, industry executives and civilians here outside Washington, fewer than two miles from Pentagon.
Caldwell’s warm words from the podium coincide with continuing fixes by BWX Technologies [BWXT] to improperly welded missile tubes designed for the common missile compartments intended for use aboard Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines, Virginia-class attack submarines, and the U.K. Dreadnought-class submarine: the sole bearer of Britain’s nuclear weapons.
BWX Technologies, also the manufacturer of the next-generation nuclear reactors that will power the U.S. boats, said this week it is about 60% through fixing the bad welds, which affected 12 missile tubes. The company is under contract to deliver 26 tubes into 2021, but appears to have backed away from the business after booking a charge on the repairs that made the work unprofitable.
The Navy and its industrial partners are also under pressure from Congress, which continues to fret about the service’s and industry’s capacity to crank out two Virginia-class attack submarines a year, even as plans proceed to begin building the first Columbia submarine in 2021.
Hitting on the tubes specifically, Caldwell touted a “a highly detailed certification plan for the common missile compartment, using mechanized welding that is absolutely impressive.”
Columbia will carry the nuclear-tripped, Trident II D5 missiles that act as the stealth leg of the U.S. nuclear triad. The weapons are meant to deter a nuclear first strike on the U.S. homeland by threatening an all-but-certain nuclear second-strike from the oceans.
But in reaching out a hand to industry, Caldwell also sought to rally everyone from shipbuilding primes General Dynamics [GD] and Huntington Ingalls [HII] to their suppliers, calling for better and faster manufacturing that leans on a deeper supplier base.
Caldwell called for “[r]educing the maintenance burden and driving the productivity in our workforce, both in the private and the product [ship]yards, and [encouraging] innovation to drive down construction costs.”
“We really must attack that [cost],” Caldwell said. “And we must see if we can get after manufacturing duration.”
The Navy estimates it will cost about $100 billion to build and operate the 12 Columbia-class submarines intended to replace Ohio-class submarines beginning in the 2030s. Columbia would sail into the 2080s.
It is, Caldwell said, a “no-fail mission.”