The Ups and Downs of Electric Boat

By Commander John D. Alden, U.S. Navy (Retired)

Meanwhile, the Navy had ordered six additional submarines, known as the A class, but Congress was slow to authorize more. Turning to foreign customers, EB sold the British Vickers company a 25-year license to use its designs. Soon Vickers and Rice held a controlling interest in the company. When the Russo-Japanese War broke out, EB had five A-class submarines fabricated at the Fore River Shipbuilding Company and assembled in Japan. It also shipped its privately owned Fulton clandestinely to Russia, where six duplicates were built. By the time the United States entered World War I, more than 100 submarines had been ordered or built to EB designs by Great Britain, The Netherlands, Austria-Hungary, Norway, Chile, Russia, Italy, and Spain.

In the United States, orders flowed to EB for submarines of the B through R classes. Improvement was steady, but government officials resented EB's political maneuvering, monopolistic practices, and fat profits. Starting with the G class of 1911, the Navy tried to stimulate competition, mainly by giving contracts to the Lake Torpedo Boat Company, but the bulk of all new orders continued to go to EB. When the Navy specified diesel engines in the E class, EB founded the New London Ship and Engine Company (Nelseco) in order to retain control of the power plants for its boats. Impatient submarine officers demanded more than the existing technology could provide and blamed EB for the force's inevitable growing pains. Relations deteriorated, and the Navy assigned L- and O-class boats to government yards, in order to develop its own design and construction capability.

When Congress authorized an expanded construction program of 9 fleet type and 58 smaller submarines in 1916, the Navy awarded competitive contracts for three S-class prototypes to EB, Lake, and Portsmouth Navy Yard. Wartime orders for additional S-boats were split among the three builders, but many were not completed until after the war. The mass production of these pre-war designs ultimately hurt both the Navy and Electric Boat. When submariners learned of the superior characteristics of the German U-boats, especially their engines, which had benefited from constant improvement under combat conditions, criticism of the U.S. boats became vitriolic. While EB struggled to correct the poorly understood torsional vibration problems that plagued its engines, the Navy concentrated all new construction work in its own yards. Admirably, the company kept its cadre of designers intact through this low period by selling plans for six submarines to Spain, building four for Peru—the first boats constructed in EB's own shipyard at Groton, Connecticut—and doing whatever contract work it could find. Things finally improved when the Navy resumed competitive development of the World War II "fleet boat" in 1932. EB was given the contract for the V-9 (renamed Cuttlefish ) and was authorized to incorporate some of its own ideas, such as a welded hull. From then on, the relationship between EB and the Navy remained cooperative and beneficially competitive. The company produced about half of the Navy's victorious submarine force; even the once maligned O-, R-, and S-class survivors made useful contributions to the war effort. Wartime crews valued EB submarines for their design and workmanship, although they sometimes griped at the company's reluctance to make last-minute changes.

After the war, the Navy experimented with different types of new and converted submarines. EB expanded, became the General Dynamics Corporation, and took the leading role in the introduction of nuclear power with the Nautilus (SSN-571) during the 1950s. A high point was the successful completion of the Polaris program, but relations began to sour as personnel changed and naval budgets tightened. During the long era dominated by Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, the Navy ceased building submarines in its own shipyards, and commercial competition dwindled, until the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Corporation remained as EB's only rival. The company ran into trouble in the 1970s when it accepted contracts for the huge Trident program, as well as a long series of Los Angeles (SSN-688)-class nuclear powered attack submarines. Managers came and went, the work force expanded to 29,000, and problems mounted. By 1977 almost half of the employees in essential trades were inadequately trained, discipline was slack, productivity slipped, and the government and company blamed each other for delays and cost overruns. In October, EB hired a tough new manager who immediately fired hundreds of engineers and technical personnel. With $544 million in claims unsettled, EB halted work on 16 attack submarines in March 1978. The Navy could not tolerate such delays, and threats and countercharges were exchanged, but peacemakers stepped in and negotiated a settlement.

Things quieted down for a few months, but then welding defects and material problems cropped up on the Trident submarines, bringing Rickover's wrath down on the company's management. In congressional hearings between 1980 and 1981, EB was castigated for high costs, defective work, and poor management. The acrimony lessened after the first Trident boat, the Ohio (SSBN-726), was commissioned in November 1981. EB brought in a new manager (the previous incumbent later fled the country after being indicted for taking kickbacks), and Rickover was ordered into retirement.

The heavy but stable workload afforded by the Trident and SSN-688 programs led to benefits as well as problems. EB progressively developed a former naval station at Quonset Point, Rhode Island, into an automated facility where complete hull modules could be built, fitted with internal components, and barged to Groton. There, the Trident submarine hulls were assembled on a new land-level construction site, moved to a huge lift platform when ready to be launched, and lowered into a drydocking basin. Computer programs also began to revolutionize the design process. The last SSN to be launched in the traditional fashion slid down the ways in 1994. Now, the company is designing submarines entirely by computer and expects to be installing 90% of their internal equipment in the modules at Quonset.

Things went quite smoothly during the 1980s. The Navy initiated planning for a new class of attack submarines for the 21st century, which matured into the Seawolf (SSN-21) design, of which 29 were intended. Electric Boat won the lead contract in 1989, but then another round of problems began, starting with hull cracks on the Topeka (SSN-754). By 1990 the entire naval shipbuilding program was over budget and in trouble. The AN/BSY-2 sonar system for the new nuclear-powered attack submarines fell behind schedule, only one Seawolf was approved in 1991, and the planned production rate was halved. Operation Desert Storm that year focused naval interest on sealift shortfalls and prepositioning of combat material overseas. When EB was selected to build the second Seawolf , Newport News sued and stalled the contract, and the Navy started planning a cheaper new nuclear-powered attack submarine (NSSN). That summer, cracks found in the Seawolf s hull were attributed to faulty welding of HY-100 steel. The planned class was cut to seven, then to three. Finally, in early 1991, President George Bush tried to cancel all but the Seawolf herself.

To those familiar with the business, it was plain that the nation's entire submarine industrial base was in jeopardy. The national debate that followed resulted in the decision to fund the third Seawolf in order to bridge the gap until an NSSN design was completed and to keep, it was hoped, two shipyards capable of building nuclear-powered ships. The Bottom-Up Review in 1993, however, decided that submarine construction should be concentrated in a single yard: Electric Boat. Since then, political debate has continued, with a strong faction seeking to divert funds from submarines to aircraft or civilian programs. Initially, Congress insisted on splitting the first four NSSNs (now the Virginia [SSN-773] class) between EB and Newport News, then having the yards compete for future orders. But the Navy persuaded the companies to bid for the contract as a team, with each building parts of each submarine. Congress finally went along.

The nation's shipbuilding industry has entered a period of massive consolidation. General Dynamics led the charge by purchasing Bath Iron Works in 1995 and National Steel and Shipbuilding in 1998. With Electric Boat, the company now owns three of the former "big six" shipyards. Newport News and Avondale reacted early in 1999 by agreeing to merge, but General Dynamics countered by making an unsolicited offer of $1.4 billion for Newport News. Since then Ingalls has signed a deal to acquire Avondale and has made an offer to acquire Newport News. Such acquisitions are sure to provoke strong opposition among proponents of competition. But de facto consolidation already may be here. Not only are EB and Newport News collaborating on the Virginia -class submarines, but Bath also is working closely with Ingalls on the Aegis guided-missile destroyers and has a joint venture with Avondale to build 12 LPD-17 amphibious ships.

As far as submarines are concerned, Electric Boat undoubtedly will continue to be the major supplier. Sentiment in Congress appears to be building in favor of recapitalizing the Navy at a somewhat faster rate. On the other hand, construction of the first few Virginia -class boats may not go entirely smoothly. Many radical innovations in the design and efforts to cut costs may lead to unexpected problems. The present production rate is too low to support the work force at a truly economical level, and as costs rise, critics will charge that the Virginias, like the orphaned Seawolfs , are too expensive. The outlook for the new millennium is anybody's guess.

Commander Alden is a long-time contributor to Naval Institute publications. He is the author of the Naval Institute Press books, U.S. Submarine Attacks of World War II (1989) and Salvage Man: Edward Ellsberg and the U.S. Navy (1997).

 

 
 

Conferences and Events

2014 U.S. Naval Institute History Conference

Wed, 2014-10-01

The 2014 Naval History Conference is hosted by the U.S. Naval Institute and the U.S. Naval Academywith support from The William M...

Defense Forum Washington 2014

Newseum - Knight Conference Center

2015 WEST Conference

View All

From the Press

Guest Speaker

Tue, 2014-09-30

Why Become a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute?

As an independent forum for over 135 years, the Naval Institute has been nurturing creative thinkers who responsibly raise their voices on matters relating to national defense.

Become a Member Renew Membership