The negotiated conference result for the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) had Senate and House members agree to increase advanced procurement funds for the Columbia-class submarine, approve additional ship-to-shore connectors (SSCs), and prepare the aircraft carrier USS George Washington (CVN-73) for the upcoming MQ-25 unmanned carrier tanker aircraft.

The Columbia-class program is working to replace 14 Ohio-class nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) with 12 new vessels. The Navy has called the Columbia program its highest priority and expects to procure the first boat in FY 2021. According to a June Congressional Research Service (CRS) report, the Navy estimated the lead ship will cost $8.2 billion plus extra billions for plans for the class and then average cost for follow-on boats is estimated to be $6.5 billion.

Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine USS Louisiana (SSBN 743). Photo: U.S. Navy
Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine USS Louisiana (SSBN 743). Photo: U.S. Navy

An April Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found the total projected acquisition cost of the overall program will be $102 billion. The administration’s proposed FY ’19 budget requested $3 billion in advanced procurement (AP) funding and $705 million in research and development funds.

The House’s NDAA version authorized an additional $83 million over the $3 billion request while the Senate authorized the requested amount, The conferees ended up with $237 million over the request.

The conference report said the conferees intent with this extra money is aimed at submarine industrial base expansion “to ensure second- and third-tier contractors are able to meet increased production requirements.”

It also said they believe expanding the capabilities of these next tier contractors in the industrial base should cause more cost savings and efficiency as production increases to meet both the Columbia-class schedule and the higher requirement for Virginia-class attack submarines in the Navy’s Force Structure Assessment.

The bill also requires the Secretary of the Navy to notify the defense committees within 30 days of obligating funds provided for submarine industrial base expansion.

Virginia­-class SSNs are built by General Dynamics [GD] Electric Boat (GDEB) and Huntington Ingalls Industries’ [HII] Newport News Shipbuilding while Columbia’s prime contractor is GDEB.

The Chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower in May said once the Columbia-class SSBN moved to full scale production the Navy will have to increase its total shipbuilding funds because of the SSBN’s cost. He thought this was achievable if the Navy does enough advanced procurement and economic order quantity work to make a “sustainment ramp to get there.” (Defense Daily, May 10).

Relatedly, the House NDAA prohibited the Secretary of the Navy from entering into economic order quantity contracts for the Virginia-class submarines (SSNs) until he certifies such funding shall be used for 12 rather than 10 Virginia-class submarines. Although the Senate had no corresponding provision, it added an amendment requiring the Secretary to ensure that an option to procure an additional submarine in FY ’22 and FY ’23 is included in the associated multi-year procurement contract planned for FY ’19.

This changed provision may be a response to a failed amendment in the House appropriations bill to add $1 billion for advanced procurement  funding to help the Navy prepare to build one extra submarine each in 2022 and 2023. The Navy is planning to build two SSNs each year over the next five years but previously said the industrial base can build a third in 2022 and 2023.

The House’s bill approved long-lead time material for the extra SSNs but the House voted down an amendment on the appropriations bill because it would take money form other programs. Deputy Secretary of Defense Pat Shanahan sent a letter to the House Appropriations Committee arguing against the amendment (Defense Daily, June 28).

The future USS Indiana (SSN-789) conducts sea trials with shipbuilder Huntington Ingalls Industries Newport News Shipbuilding. (Screenshot of video: HII)
The future USS Indiana (SSN-789) conducts sea trials with shipbuilder Huntington Ingalls Industries Newport News Shipbuilding. (Screenshot of video: HII)

The conference also added money for ship-to-shore connectors. The FY ’18 budget request asked for five vessels at $325 million. The House NDAA upped that number to eight vessels for $508 million while the Senate stuck with the original request (Defense Daily, June 6). The conference decided on the larger House numbers.

The SSC is being built by Textron [TXT] as a next-generation Landing Craft Air Cushion (LCAC) that improves of the older vessels with better engines, greater payload, and more fuel efficiencies, among other improvements.

Textron tested its first SSC, LCAC-101, last April and is working on the nine follow-on vessels while the Navy plans to eventually procure at least 20 SSCs, but the program envisions up to 73 hovercraft (Defense Daily, April 18).

The conference also modified a House provision requiring the Navy to incorporate the MQ-25 unmanned tanker on to CVN-73 before it finishes its next Refueling Complex Overhaul (RCOH) (Defense Daily, May 4).

The Senate receded to the provision but added an amendment requiring the Navy to finish the necessary alterations to CVN-73’s compartments and infrastructure during the ship’s RCOH “in order to allow completion of MQ-25 modifications and receipt of MQ-25 equipment in a single follow-on ship maintenance period.”

The report added the conferees believe the Navy should prioritize deploying the MQ-25 to the Pacific area of operations once it is fielded. Since CVN-73 is potentially the next forward deployed carrier to be sent to the Pacific, the conferees said they “believe it is imperative” the carrier undergo the necessary modifications during RCOH “to enable MQ-25 operations as soon as practicable.”

However, conferees said they are aware finishing all the necessary modifications may put the timely completion of the RCOH at risk.

“Therefore, the conferees direct the Navy to complete necessary MQ-25 modifications during CVN-73’s RCOH that would enable the completion of modifications and receipt of equipment during a single follow-on maintenance availability.”

The bill allows the Navy to finish installing all MQ-25 alterations during the RCOH if possible but does not want to prolong the period itself.

The Navy plans to award a final contract for the MQ-25 later this year. Competitors are General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc (GA-ASI), Boeing [BA], and Lockheed Martin [LMT].