WASHINGTON — The U.S. Navy’s Virginia-class attack submarine program is playing catch-up after falling at least a year behind schedule. But it’s still facing a pair of challenges in the next several years: The addition of a Virginia Payload Module will increase the workload to build Virginia SSNs by about 33%, and the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine program will consume an increasing proportion of the workforce and attention within the submarine-industrial base — potentially leaving the Virginia subs to fall further behind.
Though the Block IV boats being built now by General Dynamics Electric Boat and its industry team originally had a 60-month construction timeline, Electric Boat President Kevin Graney told Defense News the timeline is actually in the “low 70s.”
But he’s hoping to rein in that schedule growth now — driving it down to 68 or 67 months — before that task gets any harder.
One technique is identifying an early milestone — in this case, the initial fill of the nuclear reactor plant — and then trying to achieve that a month early for every submarine.
Additionally, he said, there are a lot of new employees working on the Virginia program since many experienced shipbuilders were moved to the Columbia program, which is the Navy’s top priority and has no room for a schedule slip.
With that fresh labor force comes challenges in getting work done right the first time, but it also means new employees are questioning old processes and sometimes coming up with alternatives that shave time off the schedule.
Graney said the company has been good about empowering employees to do this, but needs to improve when it comes to documenting the successful ideas. He said Electric Boat will relook at its documentation to ensure lessons learned are codified and repeated boat after boat.
Graney noted the shipbuilding industry as a whole is struggling to recruit and retain new employees — especially as wages in other sectors rise so much that “the difference between working at a skilled position at a shipyard versus in fast food has kind of shrunk.”
Still, his “secret weapon” amid this workforce challenge is the tight collaboration between federal, state and local governments in Connecticut and Rhode Island to create a training pipeline for new recruits.
“We are working harder than I think we would have predicted two years ago on getting recruits, getting them hired, getting them into the training schools, and then getting them out the other end so they can get on the deck plate and start to gain proficiency,” Graney said.
“What I’m thrilled about is, we can go in … and say: ‘Hey, we’ve got a problem with welds passing magnetic particle testing. We want you guys to incorporate something in your curriculum that gets the guys to be proficient.’ And in the next cohort, they’ve got something developed and implemented. So that is an incredible agility that I don’t think has ever existed before. Fantastic, provided of course you can find the people and keep the pipelines filled,” the executive added.
The success — or failure — of these recruiting, training and retention efforts will impact Virginia program alone, Graney said, because the Columbia program will always be given the talent and resources it needs to stay on track.
“If we’re short people, we’re going to be short people on Virginia,” he said.
Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs, and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.