BANGOR — For more than four decades, about 2,000 workers at a facility surrounded by forests at the Kitsap-Bangor Naval Base focused on keeping America’s nuclear-armed submarines at sea.
But the Trident Refit Facility, as it is also known, is now embarking on a new mission: taking on the maintenance of a brand new, technologically advanced class of 12 boats that comprise the new generation of ballistic missile submarines.
“It’s like you’re working on a conventional model car from the mid-1980s and all of a sudden you have to be working on Teslas at the same time,” said Capt. Mike Eberlein, commander of the Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarine repair and modernization command in Bangor. “We will need world-class teams working side by side on the different programs.”
It’s a heavy lift. The Kitsap-Bangor Naval Base will overhaul facilities to prepare for the so-called Columbia-class submarine. A new Trident missile, planned for the 2040s, is also being developed, and the Navy estimates the Hood Canal base will need hundreds of millions of dollars to modernize it.
The transition to the Columbia class marks the third generation of nuclear-armed submarines in American history. The first, known as the “41 for Freedom”, entered service between 1959 and 1967. The second, the Ohio class, was the first to be based at Kitsap-Bangor Naval Base when it opened in 1977.
The Navy and Pentagon are closely watching the transition to the new submarines. Should delays occur, Navy leaders are already considering extending the life of five Ohio-class submarines as a back-up to ensure the “strategic deterrent” mission — responding to an enemy attack using strategic weapons Nuclear Weapons – Never Stops, According to United State Naval Institute. That would require the refit facility to employ Ohio-class experts longer to keep these ships running.
The jump to Columbia as an electric car is more than an analogy that Capt. Eberlein makes. For example, the nuclear reactor propulsion systems of the Ohio-class submarines use a steam turbine to drive the main shaft. On the Columbia class, the steam turbine will generate electricity that powers an electric motor. The new generation will also use much higher voltage systems.
The pressure: In the Columbia class, the system has to be ready on the first day. The first in class is scheduled to complete its first patrol in 2031.
“We have to be masters of the craft the day it arrives,” he said.
Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, with a workforce more than seven times her size, is getting more attention as the Navy’s industrial powerhouse in the Pacific Northwest. However, Ed Ingles, the managing director of the Trident Refit Facility, said it has a smaller but very dedicated workforce that is constantly looking for new blood.
“We are the best kept secret on the Kitsap Peninsula,” said Ingles.
The longtime director said he prides himself on the ingenuity of the facility, which has implemented many ideas to increase speed or efficiency to keep the Ohio-class ships at sea. He mentioned technologies including the use of so-called plasma jets, or superheated gas, to clean submarine surfaces.
Other technologies at TRF, as it is known for short, will also change. That includes everything down to the sub’s periscopes.
Instead of sticking out of the hull, they attach to a cable and are electronically operated. At the most basic level, the periscopes go from a series of lenses to cameras, according to Kate Gendreau, a retired Coast Guard quartermaster who is the general foreman for the periscope and radar shops at the facility.
Gendreau is leading a crew of 15 — ranging in age from 19 to 62 — in changing and refitting periscopes used on the submarines. On the second floor of the main building of the refit facility, the 50 foot long periscopes need to be assembled and mounted.
Unique to the facility, the periscope and radar stores serve the Navy beyond the Ohio class. The periscope shop, for example, takes on giant binoculars from Navy aircraft carriers. And the store needs to combine many trades to complete the work.
“We’re jacks of all trades,” said Gendreau. “We operate rigging, cranes, paint and sandblast. We have our own machine shop. That gives us a lot of autonomy.”