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    US Navy Virginia-class attack submarine SSN 774 USS Virginia (US Navy photo)

    Subcontractor Slammed for ‘Substandard Welding’ on Upgraded US Virginia-Class Attack Subs

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    Last week, BWX Technologies, one of just two US manufacturers capable of making missile tubes for the new Columbia-class submarine programme, threatened to pull out of the business completely amid ongoing work to repair 12 submarine missile tubes it had welded incorrectly in 2018.

    “Substandard welding” and ‘improperly administered” testing have delayed the delivery of new missile tubes for the US Navy’s Virginia-class submarines, Bloomberg has reported, citing the Naval Sea Systems Command.

    Four new large-diameter launch tubes, subcontracted out by General Dynamics to BWX and BAE Systems, are designed to nearly double the Virginia class’s Tomahawk cruise missile carrying capacity, from 37 to 65, and are part of the US Navy’s program of upgrading the existing attack sub design while preparing for the construction of new Columbia-class submarines starting in 2021. Earlier this year, the Pentagon lobbied to nearly double the budget of the latter programme, from the $2.3 billion laid out for fiscal year 2020 to $4.3 billion by the time production begins, and over $5 billion thereafter.

    BWX, responsible for three of the four new missile tubes for the Virginia-class vessels, has been reprimanded from the Navy over its substandard work, with delivery dates pushed back from January, April and October of this year to May, June and July of 2020.

    The company indicated earlier this month that it was considering stopping the production of missile tubes for the Colombia-class sub program after its existing commitment runs out in 2021, amid waffling by prime contractor General Dynamics Electric Boat on whether to increase orders.

    Shelby Oakley, director of the Government Accountability Office’s contracting and national security acquisitions team, told Bloomberg that the welding issue was part of a broader problem affecting the US military shipbuilding industry, with the industrial base engaged in such construction declining “significantly since previous major submarine construction in the 1980s.”

    Today, Oakley said, the situation is compounded by “higher demands of supplying components for use on both submarines,” i.e. the upgraded Virginia-class and the up and coming Columbia-class.

    An artist rendering of the future Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines. The 12 submarines of the Columbia class are a shipbuilding priority and will replace the Ohio-class submarines reaching maximum extended service life. The Columbia-class Program Executive Office is on track to begin construction with USS Columbia (SSBN 826) in fiscal year 2021, deliver in fiscal year 2028, and on patrol in 2031.
    An artist rendering of the future Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines. The 12 submarines of the Columbia class are a shipbuilding priority and will replace the Ohio-class submarines reaching maximum extended service life. The Columbia-class Program Executive Office is on track to begin construction with USS Columbia (SSBN 826) in fiscal year 2021, deliver in fiscal year 2028, and on patrol in 2031.

    The Navy assured the business newspaper that “the delay in tube delivery” as a result of BWX’s poor workmanship “does not equate” to a delay in the delivery of the new submarines themselves.

    A spokesperson from the Lynchburg, Virginia-based company stressed that BWX “understand[s] our customers’ rigorous standards for success and are committed to delivering products and services of the highest quality.”

    The new missile tubes for Virginia-class subs, known as the ‘Virginia Payload Module’, will extend the submarine’s hull by some 84 feet. The US has built at least 17 of the $2.8 billion per unit subs since 2000, and plans to produce 66 of the vessels over their lifespan, with the new module intended for the Block V order, consisting of 10 boats, to help the Virginia-class take over from other cruise missile sub designs once these are retired. The Block V boats were ordered in February 2017.

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