In what could be a boon to submarine subcontractors and the broader nuclear-naval industry, the Navy is looking at buying components for Columbia-class submarines, especially boats that will follow the two already under contract, a little earlier, the head of naval reactors said Monday.

“We’re looking at what we can do to further de-risk

Columbia deliveries, especially with follow-on boats, including additional advanced construction and earlier component buys, all designed to help us deliver the Columbia class without missing a drumbeat,” Adm. James Caldwell said in a webcast presentation to the Naval Submarine League’s Annual Symposium.

Earlier this month, the Navy awarded General Dynamics [GD] Electric Boat a $9.4 billion contract that covers the first of 12 planned Columbia-class submarines — which is supposed to begin nuclear-armed patrols in the early 2030s — plus advanced procurement money for a second Columbia boat.

Construction on the first Columbia submarine officially started on Oct. 1, Caldwell said. Despite some schedule pressure thanks to the ongoing, now worsening, COVID-19 pandemic, Caldwell said the first Columbia boat’s reactor components, built by BWX Technologies [BWXT] and provided to GD as government-furnished equipment, “are pacing to deliver to the shipyard with margin to the schedule.” 

BWX Technologies, Lynchburg, Va., has a virtual monopoly on naval reactor components, which it makes for  submarines and surface ships. After awards in 2019 and 2020, the company has nearly $3 billion worth of active Navy contracts for Columbia– and Virginia-class reactor components. The latter is the Navy’s attack submarine, which is nuclear-powered but not nuclear-armed.

In its 2021 budget request, the Navy estimated it will cost about $110 billion just to build the 12 Columbia-class submarines that will replace the 14 existing Ohio-class boats. Columbia, at least initially, will carry Trident II-D5 missiles tipped with either W88 or W76 warheads provided by the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).

The NNSA has already refurbished the W76 for 30 years of service that will mostly be spent aboard Columbia and is scheduled to begin mass production of a refurbished W88 warhead, dubbed W88 Alt-370, some time after next July.

Also on Monday, Caldwell said that the Navy is considering, on a case-by-case basis, whether the service can extend the lives of some ballistic missile submarines for “additional months, or ever a few years” to buy contractors more time to complete Columbia construction.

President elect Joe Biden (D) has not signalled an imminent haircut for military spending across the board. House Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) has said he is open to a debate about shrinking nuclear-weapons spending, but he has focused on land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles as a target for potential cuts, lauding the submarine fleet as the most secure arm of the U.S. arsenal.