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Is the Navy’s New Columbia-Class Missile Submarine In Trouble?

Columbia-class. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
An artist rendering of the future U.S. Navy Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines. The 12 submarines of the Columbia-class will replace the Ohio-class submarines which are reaching their maximum extended service life. It is planned that the construction of USS Columbia (SSBN-826) will begin in in fiscal year 2021, with delivery in fiscal year 2028, and being on patrol in 2031.

Columbia-Class Missile Submarine In Trouble? 

The United States Navy should expect delays in delivering the first Columbia-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) warned earlier in the year.

Though the service had hoped to have the first of the boats delivered in record time, the federal watchdog has suggested it isn’t likely to happen due to a lack of schedule risk analysis, which could help identify and manage risks to achieving planned delivery dates.

The U.S. Navy is currently planning to spend $132 billion to develop and purchase a dozen of the Columbia-class boats – the largest and most complex submarines in its history. The plans had called for the first one to be delivered in April 2027. 

The submarines have been a top priority for the Navy, and construction began on the future USS Columbia (SSBN-826) on October 1, 2020, while the full class of twelve boats is meant to replace the aging Ohio-class submarines beginning at the end of the decade.

Research and development work on the new class of SSBNs has been underway for several years, while advanced procurement (AP) funding for the lead vessel began in the fiscal year 2017 (FY17). Each of the planned dozen boats will be 560 feet in length and have a beam of 43 feet. The class is being constructed with a life-of-ship reactor, which will result in a shorter mid-life maintenance period, and each was designed to serve a forty-two-year service life. This will allow the dozen Columbia-class SSBNs to replace the existing fourteen Ohio-class boats – and reduced overall upfront procurement costs.

Two U.S. shipbuilders, General Dynamics Electric Boat (Electric Boat) and Huntington Ingalls Industries Newport News Shipbuilding (Newport News), had been awarded the contracts for the design and construction of the submarines. Electric Boat is the prime contractor for design and construction with Newport News serving as its major subcontractor.

In December, General Dynamics was also awarded a $5.1 billion modification of the previously awarded Columbia Integrated Product and Process Development Contract.

Columbia-Class Problems

Though the Navy had planned to deliver the first – or lead – boat more quickly than it had for the lead submarines of prior classes, the shipbuilder has not conducted a schedule risk analysis of the lead submarine’s construction schedule, the GAO has noted.

GAO leading practices, as well as those of the Department of Defense (DOD) guidance, are meant to identify schedule risk analysis as a critical tool for understanding and managing program risks that could impact the schedule.

“Without a statistical schedule risk analysis, programs have limited insight into how schedule risks could affect the likelihood of achieving key program milestones, including delivery, and the amount of margin—or a reserve of extra time—needed to manage critical risks and avoid delays,” the GAO report noted.

“After more than a year of full-scale construction on the lead Columbia submarine, the shipbuilders are facing delays because of challenges with design, materials, and quality. The shipbuilders are working to mitigate delays using additional shipyard resources, such as more staff to complete work more quickly. Because of the Columbia class program’s essential role in strategic deterrence, it has priority status over most national defense-related programs, including the Virginia class program,” it added.

Recommendations to the Navy

As part of its findings, the GAO laid out six recommendations, including that the Navy conduct a schedule risk analysis and update long-term plans. DOD concurred with four and partially concurred with two recommendations.

This included calling for the Secretary of the Navy, in coordination with the program office, to obtain lead and follow-on Columbia-class construction schedule information in the shipbuilder’s native file format or other formats that are compatible with government scheduling software. The Secretary of Defense should also ensure that OUSD(R&E) conducts a schedule risk analysis of the lead Columbia submarine’s construction schedule to inform the first in-progress program review of 2023 and provide the results to the program office.

The Secretary of the Navy should also ensure that the program office uses the schedule risk analysis from OUSD(R&E), and once provided, should update plans for the lead submarine’s delivery. The Secretary of the Navy should further ensure that the program determines an approach for conducting scheduled risk analysis for future Columbia-class submarines, including who is responsible for conducting the analysis and when it will be conducted.

The Secretary of the Navy should then obtain updated information about the shipbuilders’ Integrated Enterprise Plan that reflects the updated execution plans and resources needed to address shared risks across the nuclear shipbuilding enterprise – and finally, the Secretary of the Navy should ensure that the Fiscal Year 2024 30-year shipbuilding plan is informed by updated planning that reflects resources needed to address shared risks between the Columbia and Virginia class programs, in order to certify that the budget the Navy submitted is sufficient to procure submarines on the schedules outlined in the plan.

Author Experience and Expertise: A Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer. He has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,200 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, politics, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes and Clearance Jobs. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.

Written By

Expert Biography: A Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,000 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.