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Shipyard Commander Sets Sights on Dry Dock Upgrades

Crewmembers of the Virginia-class attack submarine USS New Hampshire line the deck at an Oct. 25, 2008 commissioning ceremony at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine. (US Navy photo/Jeremy Lambert)
Crewmembers of the Virginia-class attack submarine USS New Hampshire line the deck at an Oct. 25, 2008 commissioning ceremony at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine. (US Navy photo/Jeremy Lambert)

KITTERY, Maine -- The new Portsmouth Naval Shipyard commander has his mission set for his three-year or so term -- get the shipyard on course for the day when only Virginia-class submarines are serviced at the base.

The U.S. Navy is in the process of replacing the SSN 688 Los Angeles class subs with the SSN 774 Virginia class, and the goal of the shipyard's commander, Capt. David S. Hunt, is to put the shipyard on a trajectory to have all of its dry docks Virginia-class capable when the last 688 is decommissioned.

"We have to set the stage to be a three-dock capability shipyard," Hunt said in a recent interview in his office. "That groundwork will be done during my tour here to set the shipyard up for the future."

The nation's oldest, continuously operating U.S. Navy shipyard has two docks now capable of servicing the nuclear-powered 774s. The shipyard's first Virginia-class engineered overhaul was the USS Virginia (SSN 774). The sub was commissioned in 2004 and arrived at the shipyard in 2010 for its first overhaul. The second, USS New Hampshire (SSN 778), came in last month and has been inducted into Dry Dock 2.

"Following that will be New Mexico (SSN 779), following that, the Virginia will come in," Hunt said. "There will always be two Virginia class from here on out while I'm here."

The shipyard is still expecting to complete five engineered overhauls of the 688 Los Angeles class while it continues the process of decommissioning the nuclear-powered fast attack submarines, which will be complete by 2029, Hunt said.

"At that point, we absolutely have to have a third dry dock that is Virginia-class capable, because that will be the only thing we will be maintaining out here at that point," the Philadelphia native said.

The amount of regular scheduled work has required the shipyard to continue to expand its workforce. It is expected to add 350 more employees this year. The yard's current workforce stands at 5,400 people.

The current fiscal year budget allotted $7.2 million for engineering and design work to construct a super flood basin for Dry Dock 1. "That is the first step in getting some infrastructure built where we can have another dry dock that is Virginia class capable."

Modernizing a shipyard that was established in 1800 is a continuous mission and challenge, Hunt said. There are larger and smaller projects that are a part of an ongoing 30-year modernization plan. "If you haven't modernized a building in 30 years, it's about time to do it," he said.

The shipyard recently completed upgrades to the structural shops. The piping and sheet metals shops are getting an overhaul now. When that's complete, the shipyard has plans to build a new blast and paint facility, Hunt said. The blast and paint facility will take nine facilities and combine them into one.

There is also a project upgrading the water, sewer, electricity and gas utilities at Dry Dock 1 and Berth 11.

"What's amazing about all the construction -- we're doing that as we are overhauling ships," Hunt said. "That is the key to get the shipyard modernized so we don't miss a beat in delivering ships, and that is a challenge."

The shipyard recently completed the replacement of the bridge at the entrance of Gate 1 in the Kittery Foreside. During the replacement, the bridge was always open for shift changes but closed the rest of the time. "It's interesting how that works," he said of the process.

The shipyard is also set to start construction later this year on a new barracks for sailors stationed at the yard during overhauls. The barracks were closed in mid-2015, a month after then-U.S. senator Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., toured the barracks and called them "unacceptable."

Groundbreaking on a new medical clinic is expected to start in the next couple of months as well as work to increase the capacity of the base's child development center.

One item that has no immediate plans for modernization is the former Portsmouth Naval Prison that was used from 1908 to 1974. Over the years, the Navy has solicited request for proposals for a private company to utilize the building, the last of which was in 2015, Hunt said. But none have met both the company's and Navy's needs.

Asked if it's time to give up hope of a restoration of what's been called the Alcatraz of the East, Hunt said, "There's always hope, but you're fighting time. It's a concrete structure."

Hunt assumed command of the base from the former commander, Capt. William C. Greene in July, and became the shipyard's 85th commander. Hunt is not new to the area, as he was assigned to the shipyard from 2010 to 2013 as an engineering and planning officer, and then as an operations officer.

"It was like picking up where I left off," he said about coming back to the shipyard. "But of course it's different because I've moved up."

A fan of the outdoors, Hunt hasn't been able to get much hiking in since he became commander, but he had a chance to ski a few times. "Taking over this job, it's a little busy when you first get started," he said.

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