A visit by the secretary of the Navy to Electric Boat's facilities in Connecticut and Rhode Island on Friday was as much about observing shipyard operations as it was about making the argument that two attack submarines must continue to be built annually, even as the company embarks on the once-in-a-generation task of building a new fleet of ballistic-missile submarines.
At least that's the way U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, who invited Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite to tour the submarine builder, saw the visit.
During a news briefing at EB's headquarters in Groton following the tour, Courtney said Congress is "approaching a decision point" as to whether to include money in next year's defense budget for two Virginia-class attack submarines, as opposed to one, while also continuing to fund the Columbia program, the construction of 12 new ballistic-missile submarines.
"A decision is fast approaching in terms of whether or not the two-a-year build rate that started back in 2011 is going to continue in 2021," Courtney said.
The Trump administration only included one attack submarine in its budget proposal presented earlier this year. The House, in its version of next year's defense policy bill, fully restored funding for the second submarine -- an increase of about $2.6 billion from what the Trump administration proposed. The Senate's version only partially funded the second submarine, providing $470 million more than the Trump administration.
The sticking point in Congress, and even among members of the Trump administration, is whether EB and its suppliers can handle that amount of work, and whether continuing to build two attack submarines a year would have any detriment on the Columbia program, which, given its role in nuclear deterrence, is a top priority for the Department of Defense as a whole, not just the Navy. Officials have said there is no room for error or delay within the Columbia program, since these new submarines will replace the aging fleet of Ohio-class, ballistic-missile submarines, the first of which went into service nearly 29 years ago.
Early construction of the missile tubes that will go into the Columbia submarines has begun at EB's facility in Quonset Point, R.I., and that work will ramp up starting Oct. 1, EB President Kevin Graney said. He said the expansion of facilities in Quonset Point and Groton to accommodate work on the Columbia submarines were a highlight of Friday's tour.
Braithwaite did not take part in Friday's news conference. When asked why Braithwaite did not participate, Navy spokesman Cmdr. Jereal Dorsey said the Hatch Act prevents the secretary from "participating in events during election periods that could be viewed as political endorsement."
Braithwaite, who was sworn in on May 29, first visited EB in early July as part of as tour of five shipyards to discuss issues affecting the workforce and industrial base.
Courtney said Braithwaite helped facilitate a discussion after the tour in Rhode Island between himself and U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, a Democrat from Rhode Island who is the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and other members of Rhode Island's congressional delegation, to discuss restoring funding for the second attack submarine.
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who is a member of the Armed Services Committee and took part in the tour of the Groton facility Friday, said there's been a "no-holds-barred fight" by some of his Senate colleagues "who would rather the money go somewhere else."
"I respectfully disagree with their priorities, and I think we should respect the Navy's priorities," he said.
Each year the Navy releases a list of its priorities that are not funded in the president's budget request, and the second attack submarine topped this year's list.
Gov. Ned Lamont also attended Friday's tour. He said Braithwaite had a lot of questions about workforce development, "which is where a governor comes in," Lamont said. The governor recently created the Connecticut Workforce Development Unit, which will develop workforce policy that includes training, education and placement of workers and setting strategies and goals.
EB, dubbed an essential business, has remained open throughout the coronavirus pandemic but did stop hiring and training "for a period of time" early on, Graney said. The company has since resumed those efforts.
Editor's Note: This version clarifies that Blumenthal was only on the Connecticut portion of the tour.
This article is written by Julia Bergman from The Day, New London, Conn. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the Industry Dive publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.