Editor’s note, 11/19/2021, 12:41 p.m. Eastern time. The story was changed to show that the program has two months of margin, according to the Navy’s program executive officer for strategic submarines.
The Navy’s Columbia-class submarine program could be down to as little as two months of margin, the admiral in charge of the program told the Navy Submarine League’s Annual Symposium on Thursday.
“There’s really not much margin there,” Rear Adm. Scott Pappano, the Navy’s program executive officer for strategic submarines, told the industry-heavy audience in Arlington, Va. “There’s really none.”
In 2020, the Navy awarded prime contractor General Dynamics [GD] Electric Boat (GDEB) a roughly $9.5 billion contract to build the first two nuclear-powered, nuclear-armed Columbia boats. The first vessel was supposed to be finished in October 2027 and go on patrol in October 2030, under the 78-month build schedule — six-and-half years —the service envisioned.
Now “we’re about three-and-a-half to four months off of that,” Pappano said.
Botched welds on common missile compartment tubes account for about half of the chewed margin. Last year, Papanno said the welding mistakes ate up about two months of cushion. BWX Technologies [BWXT], Lynchburg, Va., was responsible for the bad welds and ended up eating the cost to fix a dozen of the tubes, which are used for both Virginia class attack submarines, Columbia boats, and the United Kingdom’s next-generation, nuclear-armed Dreadnought ballistic missile submarines.
GDEB has now been building the first Columbia submarine in Quonset Point, R.I., for about a year, and that vessel is now around 15% complete, Pappano said Thursday. The company’s contract has margin built in, stretching it to 84 months, or seven years. If Columbia has lost four months, it would have only two months of margin remaining.
Pappano said that “to give ourselves a fighting chance at that right now, of getting to that 84 months … [i]t’s really about driving everything to the left that we can when we’re building this ship. Advance construction, advance procurement, prototyping … maintaining continuous production of components early on here.”
Meanwhile, at least the first Columbia and Dreadnought boats won’t have to worry about losing schedule to tube-manufacturing troubles.
As of Thursday, “25 missile tubes have been delivered by the vendors to Electric Boat,” Pappano said. “Twelve of those tubes for the Brits have been delivered fully tactically outfitted. That’s enough for the first Dreadnought class.” Meanwhile, Pappano said, all the tubes needed for the first Columbia boat should arrive at Quonset Point “by the end of this year.”
The Navy plans to replace the current fleet of 14 Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines with 12 Columbia boats. The vessels will carry Trident II D-5 ballistic missiles made by Lockheed Martin [LMT] tipped with a mixture of W76-1 and W88 Alt 370 warheads, with a smaller complement of W76-2 lower-yield warheads provided by the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).
On Thursday, Pappano said the Navy was considering ways to extend the life of the Ohio fleet by between three and five years to hedge against a delay in the Columbia program.
“I could do some focused maintenance on those [Ohio] submarines, bring those back in the yard,” Pappano said. The Navy is also considering giving Ohio submarines “a little bit of extra maintenance” as they approach retirement age so that their final patrols could last a little longer, said Pappano.