By Geoff Fein

The Navy is delaying the commissioning of the future USS New Mexico (SSN-779) from November to early 2010 due to issues associated with the torpedo room weapons handling system, but the submarine will still deliver ahead of its contract schedule, according to a Northrop Grumman [NOC] spokeswoman.

The submarine was supposed to be delivered from Northrop Grumman Newport News to the Navy in November. “But the required repairs will push [that date out],” Pat Dolan, Naval Sea Systems Command spokeswoman, told Defense Daily yesterday.

“[Repairs] add five weeks to the end of the schedule for New Mexico,” she added.

Contract delivery date for New Mexico was April 30, 2010. But improvements made to increase efficiencies during the build cycle helped Northrop Grumman Newport News and General Dynamics [GD] Electric Boat deliver the submarine almost seven months early, according to Northrop Grumman. So despite delays to the delivery schedule, Northrop Grumman and the Navy expect the New Mexico to still deliver ahead of schedule.

“Northrop Grumman understands and supports the U.S. Navy’s decision to delay the commissioning ceremony for PCU New Mexico (SSN-779) until early 2010, to allow for completion of construction and repair work,” the company said. “We take the quality of our work and product quality very seriously and we have instituted improvements in our engineering, production and quality systems across Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding. We are focused on completing the construction of New Mexico, and we look forward to delivering a great ship to the Navy.”

The future USS California (SSN-780) and the USS North Carolina (SSN-777) had similar issues, Dolan noted.

The North Carolina, which was commissioned May 3, 2008, will likely get her repairs during post shakedown availability, Dolan said.

The issue with the torpedo room weapon handling system was discovered last month on the future USS Missouri (SSN-780), at Electric Boat in Groton, Conn. Northrop Grumman and General Dynamics build the Virginia-class submarines under a unique teaming arrangement.

“On Aug. 6, 2009, we notified the Navy of a fastener quality issue involving PCU Missouri‘s weapons handling system tracks. The issue involves bolts that are used to secure weapon handling system tracks within the torpedo room,” the company reported. “The issue will be corrected before Missouri delivers to the Navy. We are investigating the issue with General Dynamics Electric Boat.”

Dolan said the Missouri is still expected to be christened on schedule in December.

The Navy is examining other submarines in the class and is still working to determine the cause of the problem, Dolan added.

According to Northrop Grumman, a hardware re-inspection and repair plan has been provided to the Navy for approval along with the immediate corrective actions that have already been taken and the long term corrective action plan.

“These fastener issues might, under certain conditions or circumstances, result in a misalignment of the weapons handling equipment that could prevent the movement of weapon cradles or the proper operation of the weapons handling system in a shock event,” Northrop Grumman said.

Northrop Grumman’s Newport News facility, which builds both nuclear powered submarines and aircraft carriers, has seen a variety of issues surface in the Virginia-class program.

In December 2007, a weakness in the weld process associated with non-nuclear piping welds was discovered on the USS New Hampshire (SSN-778) during testing at Electric Boat. The first weld issue surfaced in August 2007 and in October another weld was discovered to have a problem (Defense Daily, Dec. 11, 2007).

An investigation determined that “poisoning of the weld material” was to blame for the problem.

“It was a stainless steel weld and it was poisoned with copper,” Rear Adm. William Hilarides, program executive officer (PEO) submarines, told Defense Daily at the time. “That was what weakened the joint to the point where it couldn’t even hold the low air pressure, let alone the high pressure hydrostatic test you would have done before the system was certified to be ready (Defense Daily, Dec. 11, 2007).”

The Navy and Northrop Grumman eventually expanded their investigation into the weld issue to include Los Angeles-class submarines as well as aircraft carriers (Defense Daily, Dec. 21, 2007).