Because of COVID-19, vendors to Columbia submarine prime General Dynamics [GD] Electric Boat might be a few months late delivering missile tubes for the next-generation ballistic missile submarine, the Columbia program executive officer said Monday.

“[T]hat did hit us hard on the missile tubes, to the extent of probably a couple months delay in the overall missile tube production line,” Rear Adm. Scott Pappano said during a webcast hosted by the Washington-based group, the Advanced Nuclear Weapons Alliance.

Early on in the COVID-19 pandemic — which reached the U.S. in January and had shut down all but essential industries by the end of March — some welders at  BWX Technologies [BWXT] of Lynchburg, Va., and two other missile tube vendors were unable to come to work, Pappano said.

Perhaps the worst hit was Babcock Marine, the U.K.-based tube vendor within Babcock International, Pappano said. 

All three vendors are building tubes for common missile compartments that future Columbia, Virginia, and British-built Dreadnought submarines all will use.

The tube work has been snakebitten since late 2018, when BWX Technologies improperly welded a dozen common missile tubes intended for Columbia boats. The company honed in on a fix, and thought it would finish the work in 2020. However, the cost of those repairs wiped out its profits on the tube subcontracts with Electric Boat.

Despite ongoing and varied difficulties with the missile tubes, Pappano said the Navy is on track to award a contract modification that will allow Electric Boat to start building the first Columbia hull around October. The Navy and its prime are negotiating a two-sub block buy that Congress must approve.

So far, Pappano said, “I don’t see any institutional resistance to doing that” from the White House Office of Management and Budget, or Congress. He also said that, if there is a continuing resolution this year that extends 2020 budgets past Sept. 30, the Navy will need a funding anomaly, plus permission for a new start, to begin the first Columbia build.

It will cost around $110 billion to build all 12 Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines, including about $14 billion for the first boat and $9 billion for the second, according to the White House’s 2021 budget request. The first Columbia would go out on patrol starting in the 2030s, with subsequent vessels gradually replacing the current ballistic-missile fleet of 14 Ohio-class boats.

U.S. ballistic missile submarines carry Trident II-D5 missiles tipped with a mixture of W76-1 and W88 Alt-370 nuclear warheads provided by the civilian National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA): part of the Department of Energy. The subs also may carry a small number of lower-yield W76-1 warheads.

Eventually, Columbia will carry the Trident II-D5 follow-on, whatever that might be, which notionally will use the proposed W93 warhead. That new warhead, to be built from an existing NNSA design, will fly in the Mark 7 aeroshell the Navy will build in parallel with the NNSA’s nuclear explosive package.