Supplier of faulty welding on sub missile tubes working to understand scope of defects

By Jason Sherman  / August 7, 2018

The company responsible for faulty welding on missile tubes slated for the Navy's Columbia-class submarine is still working to understand the full scope of the defective work, its chief executive told Wall Street investors today.

BWX Technologies CEO Rex Geveden said during an earnings call today the company's nuclear operations group identified problems with its work and disclosed the situation to the Navy and Columbia-class prime contractor General Dynamics Electric Boat. Defense News first reported problems with missile tube welding Aug. 6.

The problem threatens to affect the $126.8 billion Columbia-class program, the Navy's top acquisition priority and a program service leaders have repeatedly stated has no margin for schedule delay, as well as the newest variant of the Virginia-class submarine program outfitted with new missile payloads.

"During the three months ended June 30, 2018, we identified rework issues related to non-nuclear components being produced within our Nuclear Operations Group segment," BWXT said in an Aug. 6 report filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Geveden, during an earnings call today, said the "rework issues" are the missile tube welding problems.

"That's a problem that we self-identified to our customers at General Dynamics Electric Boat and ultimately to the Navy," Geveden said. "We are working very closely with those customers to try to resolve this problem. Quality is a core value in our business. And this concerns some welding components. We certainly don't see this as having a material impact on the business."

He added that the company, which has a division that specializes in the design and manufacture of heavy components used in the development and fabrication of submarine missile launch tubes with locations in Barberton, OH, and Mount Vernon, IN, has "self-suspended welding operations in this area until we get the problem resolved."

"It is early in the game as to what we will need to do in terms of re-work," Geveden said. "We are working daily with our client to get that worked out, and we hope to resolve it as soon as possible."

The Common Missile Compartment is a key element of the Columbia-class submarine program the Navy has been developing with the United Kingdom, in support of the British Dreadnought SSBN-replacement program, since 2008.

Government auditors have previously identified the CMC as a critical technology for the new U.S. submarine, noting both shipbuilders and the Navy have characterized the component as "complex to build."

According to a December 2017 Government Accountability Office report, the Navy and General Dynamics have built missile tube prototypes in an effort to reduce risk and are building a CMC to demonstrate production readiness.

"In fact, Columbia-class representative missile tubes will be first installed on a United Kingdom submarine, scheduled for mid-2020," according to GAO. "The Navy has plans for a robust land-based test procedure for both the missile tubes and the CMC as a system that will provide an operationally similar environment to a submarine; however, this testing has yet to start and will not conclude for several years."

BWXT is one of three vendors providing missile tubes for the U.S./UK SSBN replacement programs and one of two vendors building missile tubes for the Virginia-class program, according to the Navy. 

Navy spokesman Bill Couch, in a statement, said: "All BWXT welding requiring volumetric inspection has been halted until the investigation is complete."

"Initial reports indicate that the other vendors do not have the same issue, and they continue to produce missile and payload tubes," he added.

The Navy does not expect this welding problem to delay the Columbia-class program; the impact on the UK program is less clear, according to Couch.

"The Navy purposely planned for early construction of the Common Missile Compartment including missile tubes and first article quad pack, to mitigate risks such as these, and construction start for Columbia remains on schedule in FY2021," the Navy spokesman said. "The Navy is working closely with the UK to evaluate impacts to Dreadnought."