In early 2015 engineers on a brand-new submarine made a troubling find: A pipe joint near the innermost chamber of its nuclear-powered engine showed signs of tampering.

The defective elbow pipe, used to funnel steam from the reactor to the sub’s propulsion turbines and generators, showed evidence of jury-rigged welding that could’ve been designed to make it appear satisfactory. But the part was already installed, the sub already commissioned.

These defective parts, each probably valued on the order of $10,000 or less, have kept the $2.7 billion attack submarine Minnesota languishing in an overhaul for two years, while engineers attempt to cut out and replace a difficult to reach part near the nuclear reactor. Meanwhile, Navy engineers are scouring aircraft carriers and other submarines for problems and criminal investigators are gathering evidence.

The unauthorized parts are impacting three new Virginia-class attack submarines, likely extending the post-shakedown overhauls for the other two subs and adding greatly to the final tab at a time these fearsome vessels are needed around the globe to defend carrier groups and strike America’s adversaries. It’s also trapped its crew in limbo as repair deadlines come and go, while other subs must take their place.

The Minnesota, the 10th Virginia-class attack boat, was delivered 11 months ahead of schedule. But it has been in the shipyards at Electric Boat in Groton, Connecticut for two years — more than twice as long as a normal post-shakedown availability. It still has months to go. The plankowner crew has spent only a handful of days at sea since joining the fleet and experts say they’re likely to forfeit their whole deployment cycle, forcing fleet bosses to make tough decisions about whether to extend deployments or withhold forces from missions overseas.

News of the lousy parts first emerged in August, a month after the Minnesota was to have finished its overhaul. Since then, a Justice Department-led investigation is examining the quality control issues that led the shoddy part to be installed in the $2.7-billion sub.

The same shoddy elbow joints were installed aboard attack subs North Dakota and John Warner, forcing the Navy to spend millions of dollars and many more months to repair them. If these pipes ruptured, they would leak steam and force the submarine to take emergency measures that would impair its combat effectiveness.

Minnesota’s repairs should be completed sometime this summer, according to Naval Sea Systems Command, but for many of the officers and crew that may be too late. They’ll have to report to their next tour of duty without having deployed, which they worry could hurt their careers, said Brian Skon, the head of the Minnesota Navy League, who helped sponsor the commissioning ceremony and stays in touch with the crew.

“They’re frustrated,” Skon said. “They want to be underway, they want do a deployment. I spoke with the chief of the boat and he’s been very clear: he wants to be a COB on deployment.”

At the center of the debacle is pipe-maker Nuflo Inc., a Jacksonville, Florida-based manufacturer that is the focus of the investigation into quality control issues, according to two Navy sources familiar with the inquiry. The investigation has delayed the repairs so that agents can recover evidence, sources said.

With 120 employees, the pipe maker bills itself as “the primary manufacturer of fittings for U.S. Navy Aircraft Carriers and Submarines,” according to their website. Nuflo has provided parts for the carrier Theodore Roosevelt’s recent mid-life refueling overhaul, as well as for the new carrier Gerald R. Ford, according to various news reports. Neither the Nuflo’s CEO or spokespersonresponded to repeated calls and emails for comment by March 25.

The setback for what has been the Navy’s most successful shipbuilding program is startling because Virginia-class has been in production for more than 15 years, according to a defense acquisitions expert.

“This is an unusual situation, especially since this is a relatively mature program,” said Dan Goure  an analyst with the Lexington Institute, based in Arlington, Va. “It’s also surprising that the yards would have had this problem.”

Making matters worse are concerns that the flawed pipe fittings may extend well beyond the three identified attack submarines. In a statement, NAVSEA, which oversees ship construction and maintenance, said it has sent inspectors across the fleet to test Nuflo-made fittings on other ships.

“As part of an ongoing investigation into a quality control issue with a supplier, General Dynamics Electric Boat and Huntington Ingalls Incorporated, Newport News, determined that fittings supplied by the vendor in question required additional testing and repair due to incorrect test documentation, incorrect testing, or unauthorized and undocumented weld repairs performed on these fittings,” a NAVSEA spokeswoman said in the statement. “The fittings, which are used in various piping applications aboard new construction submarines, are also installed on other ships. Therefore, out of an abundance of caution, the Navy, in coordination with its industry partners, has been performing additional inspections and surveys throughout the fleet to fully bound the issue.”

The full scope of the problem remains unclear. NAVSEA declined to comment on whether any other shoddy parts had been found on other ships, citing the ongoing investigation.

“NuFlo has been doing business with the Navy’s nuclear enterprise for some time now,” said one industry source who asked to speak anonymously due to the Justice Department investigation.

The Virginia-class submarine is a joint project between General Dynamics Electric Boat and Huntington Ingalls. A spokeswoman for HII declined to comment because of the ongoing investigation. A spokesman for Electric Boat deferred all questions to NAVSEA.

‘Gold standard’

The Minnesota’s plankowners in the late summer of 2013 were eager to take one of the fleet’s most lethal ships out for a spin.

“I think it will be one of those defining moments in our careers,” said Senior Chief Machinist’s Mate (SS/DV) Jody Reynolds in a Navy release, marking all the effort to establish a great command.

At its commissioning ceremony, the brass took a victory lap. The sub was delivered 11 months ahead of schedule and they cited it as as proof that the Virginia-class program was the “gold standard” in defense acquisitions.

Then Minnesota entered the yards. It was supposed to last less than a year.

The post-shakedown availability would repair problems identified at inspections and in sea trials. The work, valued at $57.2 million, would be completed by February 2015.

That was extended to July, which became public a month later when the deadline was missed and Navy Times’ sister publication Defense News reported that the joints were sidelining three submarines.

NAVSEA’s latest completion estimate is sometime “this summer,” according to their statement. This means Minnesota’s post-shakedown repairs will have lasted more than two years — as much time as it takes to refuel a Los Angeles-class attack sub.

By contrast, the post-shakedown availability for the the Virginia-class attack submarine California, the eighth of the class, was completed in 2013 in just 11 months.

All of this is ending up on the shoulders of the crew. If the PSA had gone off without a hitch, Minnesota would be nearing its first deployment, said Bryan Clark, a retired submarine officer. To top it off, a big chunk of the plankowners are likely never to deploy with their boat.

“For the crew it sucks because most of them came on not long before commissioning with the understanding that they would be doing a post-shakedown period in the yards, then work-ups then a deployment,” said Clark, a defense expert at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “Now you’ve got a whole crew of people who will spend their whole time in the shipyards or work-ups but never deploy.”

Mounting pressure

Meanwhile, the demand for attack boats, capable of running spy missions or delivering stealthy special operations teams against well guarded adversaries, is nearing Cold War levels.

In February, U.S. Pacific Command head Adm. Harry Harris, whose forces must respond to the growing tensions between China and its neighbors, testified that attack subs were among his most pressing needs; the fleet was only meeting 62 percent of his demands for attack boats, he said. In October, the 6th Fleet commander, Vice Adm. James Foggo, said he needed more attack boats in Europe in part to counter Russia moves.

“The Russians have always fully funded their submarine capabilities and as they’ve evolved, they’ve become better,” he said. “They’ve become quieter and more capable adversaries. So we need to watch that more carefully and we need to watch our presence in the undersea domain.”

Spokespeople for the Navy and NAVSEA declined to provide an estimated cost for Minnesota’s extra year in the shipyards or to say how much it will likely cost to fix the John Warner and North Dakota. The Navy spokesman acknowledged that maintenance delays affect what ships are sent on deployment, but declined to go into any specifics about how other crews were affected.

“Generally speaking, delays in maintenance periods will impact the overall operational availability of the submarine force,” Lt. Cmdr. Tim Hawkins said. “Leaders regularly review operational schedules and adjust them based on force availability and presence requirements. Attack submarines, which are always in high demand, will continue to be deployed when and where they are needed most.”

No subs have been recalled from deployment for related repairs, NAVSEA said. But the parts must be replaced within a few years of its commissioning to reduce the risk that the joint will leak or even burst in a combat scenario.

It the pipe joint were to rupture, it would not cause a radioactive incident. But it could effectively render the submarine unable to operate for weeks or months until fixed. The crew of the attack submarine Jefferson City discovered a water leak in the propulsion plant; finding and fixing that kept the sub stuck in Guam for five months in 2014.

‘Difficult’ job

The flawed fittings are joints in the 10-inch pipes that direct steam heated by the reactor core to the propulsion turbines and electrical generators that power the sub. These parts are to designed to maneuver by obstructions and around corners and often resemble pieces of metal macaroni.

Defense News reported in August that the Minnesota had one of the bad elbows installed; John Warner has three and North Dakota has six. The Nuflo-made parts initially failed magnetic test inspections that showed “minor surface indications,” then successfully passed ultrasonic test inspections after minor repairs.

But further testing by Electric Boat using acid etch inspections, which can reveal cracks in metal, showed the unauthorized welds.

When parts are delivered to the builder, one industry source explained, they have to be certified with documentation showingwho made it, with what tools and where, and how it was tested to meet the standards. So when the undocumented welds were discovered, red flags went up.

The repairs to Minnesota are time-consuming and expensive, according to two sources familiar with the work. The reactor must go through a lengthy process to set the right conditions before a repair worker can enter the compartment, which was designed never to be refueled. For this reason, these parts were built to last 35 years or beyond, the full life of the submarine. And these fixes require highly skilled technicians to work in areas where radiation limits how long they can be in the space.

“This is a really complicated and difficult cut and weld job,” one Navy source said.

What’s not clear is how long the repairs of John Warner and North Dakota will take, how many other ships have these deficient fittings, and what the total cost will be in terms of money and lost operational time.

The Navy refuses to comment while the investigation grinds on.


Defense News Staff Writer Chris Cavas contributed to this report.



Leave a Reply