The Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine is currently in good shape but the program has little room for error and may require tighter oversight, the Chief of Naval Operations said on Wednesday.

“I say [the program is] on track and that’s true, but it is right on track. And so we need to find some margin in that program, some margin in schedule in particular,” Adm. John Richardson said at the Defense News Conference.

An artist's rendering of the U.S. Navy's future Columbia-class submarine. (Photo: U.S. Navy )
An artist’s rendering of the U.S. Navy’s future Columbia-class submarine. (Photo: U.S. Navy )

Richardson said since the Columbia-class is such a complex program, “it’s just a fact of life that there are going to be things that will surprise us going forward. And so we need to try and, as I said, build in enough margin to accommodate those surprises.”

The Columbia program, formerly the Ohio Replacement Submarine, plans to produce 12 nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines to replace the 14 current Ohio-class boats.

The CNO said the program might require more oversight because it is such an important program with little room for error. The oversight could help ensure “we’re not making mistakes and eating into a program that has very thin margins already.”

A June Congressional Research Service (CRS) report said the Navy has estimated the lead Columbia-class vessel will cost about $8.2 billion plus more for plans for the class while the average cost per follow-on boat is estimated at $6.5 billion. An April Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found the total projected acquisition cost of the whole program is estimated at $102 billion.

The Trump administration requested $3 billion in advanced procurement and $705 million in research and development in FY 2019 funding. The final 2019 defense authorization bill approved that and authorized $237 million more to help submarine industrial base expansion to ensure the second- and third-tier contractors can meet higher production requirements (Defense Daily, July 25).

Separately, the CNO said the Navy is focusing its efforts on hypersonic weapons and defense “to make sure we’re keeping pace and moving ahead.”

He said this is because the U.S. does not want to be the second player in hypersonic weapons and “with a capability like that there’s a tremendous advantage to the first move there.”

Richardson underscored the Navy is working on both the offensive weapons and understanding its vulnerabilities for defense, so it can work “both sides of that coin”