By Geoff Fein

When the USS North Carolina (SSN-777) is commissioned Saturday, May 3, it will mark improvements in the way the newest attack submarines are built, enabling the Navy and its industry partners to decrease deficiencies and cut months off of the build cycle, a Navy official said.

The North Carolina is the fourth Virginia-class submarine to hit the water and the second built at Northrop Grumman [NOC} Shipbuilding’s Newport News, Va., shipyard.

“The North Carolina…was our best ship yet. The INSURV (Board of Inspection & Survey) board shows we continue to decrease the number of deficiencies we find on those platforms coming out for INSURV trials. That’s one of our objective metrics we use,” Capt. David Johnson, Virginia-class program manager, told Defense Daily in a recent interview.

The North Carolina delivered February 2008, two months later than its contract delivery date of December 2007, but far better than the USS Texas (SSN-775). Johnson added. The Texas was Northrop Grumman’s first new build submarine in a decade. The Texas delivered one year late.

“We did much better on the North Carolina,” Johnson said.

Northrop Grumman and General Dynamics‘ [GD] Electric Boat, are already fast at work on the Block II submarines, particularly on the first ship of the block, the USS New Hampshire (SSN-778), Johnson noted.

The New Hampshire is contracted to deliver in April 2009, but the benefits of serial production and several Navy funded improvements, will enable the submarine to beat that date by almost eight months, Johnson said.

“One of the premises of this program is that we have a lot of ships to build, and we have not been in this position to build a lot of ships since the 688s really. We are trying to adjust our thought process. Every ship we should get better on, and we should be building to a long-term improvement,” he said. “So every one is built a little better, every one is less span, lower cost, higher quality, less deferred work. All of that goes into getting the ships to Vice Adm. [John] Donnelly [commander, submarine force], who is in a position where he can get them quicker and use them.”

Additionally, the New Hampshire is taking advantage of the investments the Navy has made in improving construction.

“We have this very effective contract incentives called CAPEX (capital expenditure). We’ve spent about $61 million of the $91 million incentive fee provision,” Johnson said. “We have tagged two specific projects that we have approved and we’re reaping the benefits.”

One of the projects was to improve the lift capacity at General Dynamics’ Quonset Point, R.I. yard. The other project improved the coating facility at Quonset Point.

“We now can build the hull sections in four pieces instead of building the ship in 11, like the Virginia was built. We built the New Hampshire in four, and by the time the ship gets put to the final acceptance…final assembly and test site (FAST)…when we get the ship to the delivery shipyard, these four modules come together quicker,” Johnson said. “We can do our integrated system testing, get them in the water, get them to sea trials, get them delivered, because that’s where the costs accrue at the highest rate…when you are in that end game.”

New Hampshire is also the first fully coated ship in new construction, he added. “That is something we have been working toward.”

The third Virginia-class submarine the USS Hawaii (SSN-776) was 62 percent coated. The North Carolina was a little over 50 percent. At delivery, the New Hampshire will be 100 percent coated, Johnson said.

“What that buys you, now you no longer have to put them in a year-long availability after I deliver them, to coat them, which is what we have done with the first two (submarines),” he explained. “The next two are going to be shorter because we are over half coated, but now with only a three-month availability, I can get these ships through their guarantee-warranty work and any deferred work I want to get done, and then I am done. That’s kind of the thought process here.”

Because the New Hampshire‘s larger modules are more complete, that has enabled the Navy and its industry partners to pull the boat’s schedule back. “She’ll be a 71-month ship. Ten months better than we did on North Carolina [which] was an 82-month ship, so it is 11 months better,” Johnson said.

“That’s all showing that our investments are paying [off]. We are learning as we go through the build process. The hours continue to go down as well,” he added.

From construction of the first set of ships, the USS Virginia (SSN-774) and the Texas, built respectively at Electric Boat and Newport News, and the second set, the Hawaii and North Carolina, the shipbuilders were able to shave 2.2 million man-hours. Electric Boat will trim another 1.5 million man-hours from the second ships to the New Hampshire, its third construction effort, Johnson explained. “We are coming down a learning curve.”

He added that this shows each follow-on submarine is roughly 85 percent of the cost of its predecessor. “That’s fabulous performance. I am very happy with that.”

New Hampshire is the first ship I am really seeing a large influence of the investments we’ve made and the learning we have achieved on the program,” Johnson said.

The USS New Mexico (SSN-779) will be Newport News’ third effort. And just like improvements the Navy saw from the Hawaii to the New Hampshire, it is seeing similar gains from the North Carolina to the New Mexico, Johnson said. “We actually get a little better because, obviously, there is some learning you do on the ship ahead of time.”

There are improvements learned at Electric Boat that the Navy wants to deliver to Newport News for the New Mexico, he added. “They are about the same cost, they are about the same hours between the two ships, when you do an apples-to-apples comparison…and that’s important.”