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Repairs underway on submarine missile tubes affected by welding problem

Despite a welding problem that affected missile tubes that were to be installed on new U.S. and United Kingdom navy submarines, construction on the U.S. submarines is expected to remain on schedule.

The Navy announced the welding problem in August. BWX Technologies Inc., headquartered in Virginia, which manufactures missile tubes, and is a subcontractor of submarine builder Electric Boat, reportedly discovered the issue. Testing to inspect the welds was not done properly.

Twelve missile tubes were affected, and the problem was discovered before the tubes were installed on any submarines.

The Navy and EB are “aggressively pursuing actions to recover affected tubes and expedite delivery of new tubes,” Bill Couch, a spokesman for Naval Sea Systems Command, said in a statement last week.

It’s unclear whether the Navy will be able to repair all of the tubes, or whether some new tubes will have to be built.

The cost per tube, including all material and production, is between $8 million and $10 million.

Liz Power, an EB spokeswoman, said the company continues to work with BWX Technologies and the Navy to determine the scope of the issue and any necessary corrective actions.

“Electric Boat continues to focus resources on management of our supply base to ensure quality products are produced,” Power said in an email. “At Electric Boat, we design and build our submarines to meet the stringent requirements set by our Navy customer to ensure they can perform the many missions required of them.”

It’s not clear how long it will take to fix the issue.

“I’m confident they can fix a lot of them, whether they can fix every single one of them is not clear,” said U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, who recently visited EB’s facility in Quonset Point, R.I., to observe the repairs being done.

“With this programme, timing is everything,” Courtney said.

Navy officials have stressed repeatedly that the program to build 12 new ballistic missile submarines, known as the Columbia class, is on a tight timeline, and there’s no room for error. Courtney said many of the affected tubes were reserved for the U.K. submarines so there’s “less impact” to the Columbia program.

The Navy is working with EB “to mitigate schedule impacts,” associated with the issue, Couch said. He added that the Navy “purposely” planned for early construction of the tubes “to mitigate risks such as this,” and construction on the first Columbia submarine is expected to start in fiscal year 2021 as planned.

Courtney said he hasn’t seen an estimate of how much it will cost to fix the welding issue. Couch told the Associated Press in August that the cost wouldn’t be known until after the assessments are finished.

The repairs are very labor intensive, Courtney said, explaining the original welds have to be removed, and have to be replaced with news welds that “don’t disturb other parts of the tube.” EB has assigned engineering welders to supervise the repair work being done, and is hiring about 100 people to do quality assurance testing, he said.