Is the Navy’s Submarine Missile Program Going Down the Tubes?

The defense
industrial base is at risk of losing another industrial partner, potentially leaving
the submarine missile-tube sector with only a single producer.

BWX Technologies is threatening to reallocate its industrial capacity to other programs. Based in Lynchburg, Virginia, the company is facing difficulties meeting the exacting specifications necessary and lacks the certainty of future missile-tube orders.

The loss of BWX,
a company that produces the tubes for Columbia- and Virginia-class submarines,
from the tube-making business would deliver a consequential blow to the
stability of those Navy programs and to the health of the military industrial
base overall.

The fragility of
the defense industrial base in its current state is highlighted by welding flaws recently identified on missile tubes
delivered by BWX to the Navy for Virginia-class submarines.

The Navy is
focusing on advancing the lethality of its submarines and increasing its
overall fleet size, and the Virginia program is a crucial piece of the puzzle.

According to reports, the faulty welds will cause an estimated seven-month delay in the Virginia-class submarine program. That delay can hardly be afforded, considering how we might counter the ever-expanding Chinese and Russian navies.

Slated to produce three of the four tubes for the Virginia-class payload module, BWX has been subcontracted by General Dynamics, the prime contractor for the program. The fourth tube is being produced by BAE Systems.

However,
“substandard welding” and “improperly administered” testing has created issues,
not unlike last year’s Columbia-class welding problems.

The Columbia ballistic-missile
submarine program, the Navy’s No. 1 acquisition priority, experienced similar
quality-control issues when BWX delivered seven faulty tubes to General
Dynamics last year. Columbia tube repairs are still underway.

These consecutive welding flaws raise serious concerns about the ability of the Virginia and Columbia programs to proceed, given the small number of qualified manufacturing companies.

In fact, the Pentagon’s
2018 report “Assessing and Strengthening the Manufacturing and Defense
Industrial Base and Supply Chain Resiliency of the United States” highlights
the shipbuilding industry as having experienced some of the worst effects of
reduced competition among suppliers.

The report also
notes that this boom-and-bust cycle “result[s] in longer construction times and
increased costs.”

Each time a shipbuilding program’s timeline is delayed, the Navy’s goal of a 355-ship fleet becomes that much further out. Moreover, increased production costs mean that the Navy will be unable to procure ships at an adequate scale.

That reality has created inconsistency for shipbuilders’ profits, forcing them to make tough decisions about the future of their businesses.

Rex Geveden, BWX’s president and CEO, put it bluntly: “We’re not interested in the future orders unless we do have a way to make money on these orders.”

Geveden’s sentiment
is echoed throughout the defense industry. These companies cannot economically
justify keeping their doors open out of sheer patriotism alone.

Contractors
require steady and predictable orders that generate actual profits to sustain
their businesses.

Inconsistent funding and underfunding continue to hamstring the defense industrial base and jeopardize the future of new entrants into the defense market.

The Navy’s goal of procuring one Columbia-class sub and two to three Virginia-class subs per year could be at risk if the current industrial base cannot sustain that rate of production.

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