Washington—The Navy on Monday said it has finally reached an agreement with General Dyanamic’s Electric Boat on the construction of the next group of Virginia-class submarines, but will trim the number of vessels built over the next five years.
Electric Boat and its supporters in Congress wanted the Navy to include 10, and possibly 11, submarines in the “Block 5″ contract. But the Navy agreed to only nine, cutting production to less than two a year for the next five years.
The contract had been under negotiation for more than a year, leading to worries about the program and the future of another submarine Electric Boat is building for the Navy, the huge Columbia-class sub.
Monday, however, the Navy indicated that a number of problems bedeviling the Virginia program has been resolved and a contract agreement reached.
“The Navy has reached agreement on the Block V Virginia Class submarine contract and by the end of the calendar year the Navy intends to award these submarines under a multiyear contract that will enable stability in the industrial base and significant savings over annual procurements,” said Navy spokesman Capt. Daniel Hernandez.
Hernandez said “further information will be available upon contract award.” Electric Boat also declined to answer most questions about the contract.
“We have been working closely with the Navy and stand ready to support their needs,” said Electric Boat spokeswoman Elizabeth Power. “The contract being contemplated allows us to maintain a stable Virginia-class build rate.”
The next Virginia-class submarines Electric Boat builds will be the most expensive ever. Eight of the nine in Block V will feature the Virginia Payload Module, which will increase the hull by 84 feet to accommodate four payload tubes in the center of the submarine.
Those tubes are designed to fire Tomahawk Land Attack missiles and the subs carrying the new payload module will hold 40 Tomahawks apiece, boosting the submarine’s strike capacities. The cost of these larger Virginia-class submarines will also increase, from about $2.8 billion to roughly $3.2 billion each.
Contract negotiations had snagged because of a number of issues, including labor rates and problems with faulty welding discovered in several missile tubes and in some joints and valves.
But Bryan Clark, a retired submariner and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said the biggest hurdle was whether Electric Boat, and its partner Newport News Shipbuilding, had enough of an industrial base to build a larger Virginia-class submarine and, at the same time, start production of the new Columbia-class ballistic missile boat. There has also been a push to increase production of the Virginia-class from its current two-a-year pace to three in 2023.
“You are making the production go up to 11 in five years, you are making the submarine bigger and you are ramping up the Columbia class,” Clark said. “I think that’s a challenge and they decided not to stress the industrial base too much.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said “nine boats are less than our nation needs, and the Navy will have to budget more funding in future years.”
“Our goal continues to be a total of 11 submarines, as Electric Boat is more than capable of producing, and the American people should be expecting,” Blumenthal said. “At the same time, the Columbia Class program is ramping up, and I will work hard to prevent any delays or budget cuts in the Columbia or Virginia-class programs. “
General Dynamics is spending $852 million to expand the Groton-based Electric Boat facility to accommodate each multi-billion dollar submarine program.
But a number of federal reports — the latest a Congressional Research Survey released in September — indicated there are continued concerns about EB’s ability to build the new Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine alongside the smaller Virginia-class attack submarines that have for nearly 20 years been the mainstay of that shipyard.
Last spring, Electric Boat and Newport News struggled to meet scheduled delivery times as the Virginia-class program transitioned from production of two “regular” Virginia-class boats per year to two VPM-equipped boats per year.
“As a result of these challenges … the program has experienced months-long delays in efforts to build boats relative to their targeted delivery dates,” the September CRS report said.
The reduction in the number of Virginia-class subs the Navy orders in its next contract may or may not solve problems with shipyard capacity, but the agreement is likely to tamp down some of the concerns. And the agreement includes an option for the Navy to buy a 10th vessel in 2023 if production capacity and the budget allow.
“Today’s news that the Block V contract is reaching the final backstretch with a framework that will be built around a minimum of nine subs and an option for a tenth to maintain the program of record shows real progress in terms of getting a stable workload for this critical program,” said Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District.
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said “today’s announcement is an investment from the Navy in the future of Connecticut manufacturing, and a testament to the amazing work that the men and women of Electric Boat are doing in New London and Groton.”
Murphy, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. promised to seek more funding for submarine building.