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Sunday, January 17, 2010

More welding problems prompt another investigation on Navy submarines

General Dynamics Electric Boat has launched another investigation into welds on at least one Virginia Class submarine after the company found that a shipbuilder at its Quonset Point, R.I., shipyard may not have properly evaluated the quality of the welds he was charged with inspecting.

The employee, who Electric Boat would identify only as a "trade worker," worked on at least one submarine — the recently delivered New Mexico — though the probe could expand to include other boats, officials told the Daily Press this week.

The New Mexico. (Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding photo)

Electric Boat, which builds submarines in a partnership with Northrop Grumman Corp.'s Newport News shipyard, notified the Navy "immediately" after it uncovered the issue Dec. 1, said Robert A. Hamilton, a company spokesman.

None of the welds in question involve so-called "subsafe" portions of submarines, which include all systems exposed to sea pressure or are critical to flooding recovery, Hamilton said.

After a preliminary investigation and assessment, Electric Boat and the Navy concluded that the welds in question would not pose an immediate risk "on the ships that were underway," said Rear Adm. William H. Hilarides, the Navy's program executive officer for submarines.

"We made sure that, if all the things (the worker) did were wrong, that there would be no threat to any of the ships," Hilarides said. "That's done, and we're moving on."

Neither the Navy nor Electric Boat would say how many subs could be affected. The company is still collecting and reviewing records and expects to conclude its investigation within the next several weeks.

Patricia K. Dolan, a spokeswoman for Naval Sea Systems Command, the Navy's acquisition arm, said it is "inappropriate to provide any additional information regarding the ongoing (Electric Boat) malpractice investigation until its findings are presented to the Navy."

The latest problems sharpen the focus on quality-control processes at Electric Boat, and — at least temporarily — dim the spotlight that's been on Northrop over the last two years for similar issues.

Electric Boat's ongoing investigation has not delayed any ship schedule, officials said. The Navy is scheduled to commission the New Mexico on March 27 at Naval Station Norfolk.

The probe is limited to one worker, who is still an employee of Electric Boat but has not been in his job since the investigation began, Hamilton said.

"We are thoroughly evaluating all work performed by the individual," Hamilton said. "An important factor is that this was identified internally and fixed internally."

Because final assembly and delivery of the New Mexico was handled in Newport News, Electric Boat is coordinating weld assessments and any potential corrective actions on the boat with Northrop.

Northrop deferred all questions on the issue to Electric Boat.

Construction problems on Virginia Class subs first surfaced in late 2007, when an investigation revealed that workers in Newport News engaged in improper welding procedures that could have led to cracking in internal pipes and joints on submarines. After a 16-month investigation, the Navy determined that those problems pose no risk to sailors and submarines.

In early 2009, a Newport News weld inspector admitted to signing off on the quality of welds that he did not inspect. The inspector, Robert Ruks, was fired. The issue is still under investigation by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service.

Then last August, the Navy found that weapons-handling systems on at least four submarines were installed incorrectly by Newport News workers.

That investigation and the resulting repairs led to a delay in the delivery of the New Mexico, the sixth Virginia Class submarine that was supposed to be in the Navy's hands in August and commissioned in November.

Northrop Grumman is still working through inspections and repairs on the other affected submarines, a process the company hopes to complete by the end of March.

Despite the problems, the New Mexico was completed in 70 months, four months ahead of the contract schedule and fastest of the six subs completed so far, the Navy said.

"We had four or five quality problems on New Mexico that came to light as we delivered the ship," Hilarides said. "Each one of those was serious ... (but) each one was extremely limited in the number of things that went wrong."

Although the Navy has spent considerable time, resources and effort investigating problems on the Virginia Class subs, it has resulted in very little required repairs, Hilarides said.

"It's a bad story because we can't afford any quality problems on these ships," he said. "But ultimately, (the problems) have been relatively small and we've been able to get high quality ships aside from all that." (