Keel-laying held for submarine New Jersey, a call back to a historic connection

Newport News Shipbuilding marked a construction milestone Monday for the future USS New Jersey, an attack submarine named for a state that holds a unique claim in naval history.

New Jersey was the birthplace of the USS Holland, the Navy’s first modern, commissioned submarine — although not the first submarine of the United States. Monday’s keel-laying ceremony continued New Jersey’s ties to the “silent service,” which now comes with nuclear power and an arsenal of deadly missiles and torpedoes.

A keel-laying ceremony celebrates the start of building the ship, although the name is a bit of a misnomer. Modern submarines do not have a traditional keel that runs the length of the ship because they are built in modules. Construction is already well underway: The New Jersey is 41 percent complete and scheduled for delivery in 2021.

Following Navy tradition, a welder burned the initials of submarine sponsor Dr. Susan DiMarco onto a steel plate that will be displayed inside the boat throughout its service life.

DiMarco, a retired dentist and an active volunteer in civics and art-related activities, said she was “extremely proud” to sponsor the submarine for her home state.

A resident of Montclair, N.J., her husband is Jeh Johnson, the former Secretary of Homeland Security. He attended the ceremony along with the couple’s son, Jeh Johnson Jr., who serves in the U.S. Coast Guard. Other guests included U.S. Reps. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott, D-Newport News, and Donald Norcross, D-N.J., and the sub’s commanding officer, Cmdr. Joseph Spinks.

After the initials were burned onto the plate, DiMarco declared the keel “truly and fairly laid” and paid compliments to the welder, Jessica Batruk from Monmouth County, N.J.

Batruk represents the kind of success story lawmakers and industry leaders want to see as they push to expand the shipbuilding and ship repair workforce in Hampton Roads. Last year, a campaign called “America Builds & Repairs Great Ships” was christened to boost the labor pool in the skilled trades.

Batruk said she wanted to learn welding ever since high school friend tried it and “seemed so excited about it.”

After a series of other jobs, Batruk entered a Newport News shipyard training program. Now 35, she is fully immersed in a new career and sees a bright future for herself. She’s also proof positive that prospective shipbuilders don’t need hands-on experience.

Before coming to the shipyard, “I was working in food,” she said. “Let’s see, Mellow Mushroom, Jason’s Deli, Whole Foods and Panera.”

Growth industry

The Newport News yard, a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries, designs and builds nuclear-powered submarines in a unique teaming arrangement with General Dynamics Electric Boat of Groton, Conn.

The Navy purchases Virginia-class attack boats in blocks to save money. The New Jersey is part of Block IV, and a contract for Block V should be awarded later this year, according to reports.

Newport News and Electric Boat will also collaborate on building a new fleet of ballistic missile submarines, the Columbia class. Those boats will replace the aging Ohio-class subs and constitute the undersea leg of America’s nuclear deterrent. The Columbia class program is considered the Navy’s top priority.

Shipbuilders have consistently reduced construction time on Virginia-class submarines, but they’re facing challenges adhering to a stepped-up schedule.

Last week, Defense News reported that the program is looking at delivery delays from four to seven months, citing Navy budget documents. Naval Sea Systems Command acknowledged the delays, noting “the cumulative effect of the two-per-year construction rate impact on the submarine industrial base.”

Dave Bolcar, vice president of Virginia-class construction at Newport News, said the company is working with Electric Boat to reduce delivery time. Under the teaming arrangement, each yard builds components of the submarines and takes turns in final assembly and delivery.

“We clearly understand what those challenges are, and we’re working through those,” he said.

President Donald Trump has requested authorization for three Virginia-class submarines in his recently submitted 2020 budget, which drew praise from lawmakers in Virginia and Connecticut.

Hugh Lessig, 757-247-7821, hlessig@dailypress.com, @hlessig on Twitter

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