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Sub New Mexico passes its first milestone: The boat's keel-laying takes place at the Northrop Grumman Newport News shipyard.
[April 13, 2008]

Sub New Mexico passes its first milestone: The boat's keel-laying takes place at the Northrop Grumman Newport News shipyard.


(Daily Press (Newport News, VA) (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) Apr. 13--NEWPORT NEWS -- -- With his head cocked to the side, his face shielded by a white welding mask, Kim Kerins expertly and methodically traced the letters "CAG" onto a square metal plate with a welding torch.



In front of about 650 people Saturday morning, the 20-year Newport News shipyard veteran wanted to be sure that he got every letter just right.

"It took a long time to earn something like this," he said. "Not everybody gets to do this, so I was stressing a little."


Kerins -- who has worked on each of the first six Virginia-class submarines -- was chosen to perform the ceremonial welding at a Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding keel authentication event, the first official milestone for the sub New Mexico, scheduled to be delivered to the Navy in 2009.

In shipbuilding tradition, the keel-laying marks the beginning of construction, when the keel -- the spine of the ship that runs from bow to stem -- is laid down. But because modern Navy subs are built in modules, the process is different today.

With the mostly built New Mexico as a backdrop, the sub's sponsor -- Cindy A. Giambastiani, a philanthropist and wife of retired Navy Adm. Edmund P. Giambastiani Jr., a former Joint Chiefs of Staff vice chairman -- chalked her initials onto the plate, ceremoniously marking her approval of the vessel's construction.

Then, despite some initial anxiety over whether his welding torch would fire up, Kerins used a steady hand to etch Giambastiani's "CAG" permanently on the plate that will be displayed in the sub.

The New Mexico will be the sixth Virginia-class sub to be delivered to the Navy and the third completed in Newport News. It follows the USS Texas, which was delivered in 2006, and the just-completed North Carolina.

Virginia-class subs, which will replace the Navy's aging Los Angeles-class boats, are being built in a partnership between Northrop's Newport News shipyard and General Dynamics Electric Boat in Groton, Conn. Each yard specializes in sections of the boats and takes turns on nuclear power plant installation and final assembly.

This year, the partners wrapped up construction on the first group of four subs -- the Virginia, Texas, Hawaii and North Carolina. Construction of six more boats is well under way, with the next-in-class New Hampshire set to be handed over to the Navy this year by Electric Boat.

During Saturday's ceremony, leaders from both yards and the Navy lauded the program for continuing to drive down costs and delivery schedules with each new boat.

Meeting cost and schedule goals is a crucial element of negotiations between the service and the yards on a contract for the next block -- seven boats -- that's expected to be signed late this year.

The Navy wants Northrop and Electric Boat to be able to start delivering two boats a year in 2011, doubling the current pace of production. The Navy is asking the yards to reduce by 2012 the construction time on each sub to 60 months and cut costs to about $2 billion a sub, as measured in fiscal 2005 dollars.

In a signal of how far the yards have to go meet those goals, the North Carolina -- the most recent sub handed over to the Navy -- cost about $2.33 billion and took about 83 months to complete.

But Navy and yard officials say they're consistently moving closer to the benchmarks.

The New Hampshire is about six months ahead of schedule, said John Casey, president of Electric Boat.

The New Mexico is on budget and significantly ahead of schedule, said Mike Petters, president of Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding. Manpower costs on the boat have been reduced 13 percent, he said, and shipbuilders continue to find ways to cut costs out of processes.

It's due to be delivered in just 66 months -- 28 months faster than the Texas, the first Virginia-class sub that Northrop delivered.

"We've cut down labor hours, reduced material costs, accelerated the schedule," Petters said. The cost reductions are "across the board."

More good news came last week, when the Navy reported that the total costs for the 30-boat Virginia-class program decreased $1 billion in 2007. That followed a decrease of $3 billion in 2006.

"That's a pretty big number, a big achievement," said Adm. William Hilarides, the Navy's program executive officer for submarines.

"The hard work of government and shipbuilders together has got us within the band required to successfully negotiate the contract. We all agree that we're within the range necessary to bring this contract to fruition, and we'll see how negotiations go later this fall."

Reps. Robert Wittman and Robert C. "Bobby" Scott pledged to work with their colleagues in Washington to ensure that Congress continued to finance the Navy's shipbuilding programs, which are integral to the local economy and vital to the nation's security.

Scott said in the keynote address, "Collis P. Huntington would be pleased to see the shipyard he founded over 120 years ago not only still building ships but the best ships in the world."

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Copyright (c) 2008, Daily Press, Newport News, Va.
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