The US Navy has a proud tradition of submarine hunter killers — one American submarine has the nuclear potential to wipe out an entire continent.
Such power comes with great responsibility.
But if they are not being constructed properly, that historic legacy is being threatened … and failure, as they say, is not an option for the US Navy.
After problems with welding on missile tubes for two classes of Navy submarines, and uncertain about future work, Virginia-based military contractor BWX Technologies warns it may leave the missile tube business behind, Breaking Defense reported.
The move — which sent shockwaves through the industry — would leave only one US supplier standing who can deliver the critical systems as the Navy kicks off an ambitious schedule to build three to four subs per year.
The president and CEO of Brown & Wilcox (BWX), Rex Geveden, told analysts, “there is a pathway to stay in the (missile tube) business if we want to do it. I think the ultimate customer, the Navy and NAVSEA would want more than one supplier.”
But he added, “we’re not interested in the future orders unless we do have a way to make money on these orders.”
The revelation that BWX could leave the missile tube business segment is yet another warning for watchers of the Pentagon’s industrial base, who have been warning of disruptions in the supply chain as suppliers continue to walk away after years of procurement binges and budget cuts driven by the Budget Control Act.
If BWX, a company that also makes nuclear reactors for the Navy’s subs and aircraft carriers, pulls out of the missile tube business, it would do so after paying millions from its own coffers to correct issues with the new Columbia submarines and Virginia modernization effort, Breaking Defense reported.
Let’s face it, if you’re in the sub business or the ice cream business, if you’re not making money, why continue?
The company says it “self-diagnosed” the welding issues before sending the tubes to the Navy, and according to spokesman Christopher Dumond, “all repairs on the VPM tubes have been completed as of the end of the second quarter. We are in constant contact with both our customer and the Navy to minimize delivery schedule delays.”
Last year, the company paid US$27 million to fix the Columbia issues, after the Navy discovered incorrect welds during inspections. The company has been working as a subcontractor to Electric Boat on the US$128 billion Columbia program, which the Navy has long said is its No.1 modernization priority.
The fixes are not expected to impact the Columbia’s extremely tight schedule. Work is slated to kick off in 2021, with deliveries starting in 2030 — just in time to begin replacing the Cold War-era Ohio-class subs as the Navy’s leg of the nation’s nuclear triad.
According to Naval Technology, the Virginia Class attack submarine is an advanced stealth multi-mission nuclear-powered submarine for deep ocean anti-submarine warfare and littoral (shallow water) operations.
Although the Seawolf submarine was developed to provide an eventual replacement for the US Navy Los Angeles Class submarines in combating the Soviet forces, the prohibitive unit cost and changing strategic requirements led to the US Navy defining a smaller new-generation attack submarine.
B&W won a contract for the assembly of nuclear propulsion components for Virginia Class submarine in February 2013. The US Navy’s total requirement is for 30 of the class, Naval Technology reported.
The submarine is fitted with modular isolated deck structures, for example the submarine’s command centre will be installed as one single unit resting on cushioned mounting points. The submarine’s control suite is equipped with computer touch screens, Naval Technology reported.
The submarine’s steering and diving control is via a four-button, two-axis joystick.
The noise level of the Virginia is equal to that of the US Navy Seawolf, SSN 21, with a lower acoustic signature than the Russian Improved Akula Class and fourth-generation attack submarines. To achieve this low acoustic signature, the Virginia incorporates newly designed anechoic coatings, isolated deck structures and a new design of propulsor.
The submarine is equipped with 12 vertical missile launch tubes and four 533 mm torpedo tubes. The vertical launching system has the capacity to launch 16 Tomahawk submarine-launched cruise missiles in a single salvo. There is capacity for up to 26 heavyweight torpedoes and sub harpoon anti-ship missiles to be fired from the 21in torpedo tubes.
An integral lock-out / lock-in chamber is incorporated into the hull for special operations. The chamber can host a mini-submarine, such as Northrop Grumman’s Oceanic and Naval Systems advanced SEAL delivery system, to deliver special warfare forces such as navy SEAL teams or Marine reconnaissance units for counter-terrorism or localized conflict operations.
Virginia is also fitted with the AN/WLY-1 acoustic countermeasures system being developed by Northrop Grumman, which provides range and bearing data, along with the mast-mounted AN/BLQ-10 electronic support measures system from Lockheed Martin Integrated Systems.
Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines will feature X-shaped stern control surfaces and sail-mounted dive planes. The hull will be covered with an anechoic coating, Breaking Defense reported.
The missile compartment will integrate four factory-made missile tubes equipped with a quad pack each. It will be built and assembled in parallel with the hull and integrated into the hull along with decks, other equipment and systems.
Each submarine will be installed with 16 missile tubes for launching 16 Trident II D5 submarine-launched ballistic missiles.
Powered by three solid-fuel rocket motors, the three-stage missile can carry up to 14 multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles with W88 or W76 thermonuclear warheads to a distance of 12,000 kilometres.