The Navy announced the establishment of Program Executive Office Columbia (PEO CLB) on Wednesday to better focus on the Navy’s “number one acquisition priority,” the new nuclear-armed ballistic missile SSBN submarines.

James Geurts, assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development and acquisition, said PEO CLB will provide oversight of construction of the 12 Columbia-class submarines the Navy is procuring to replace the 14 existing Ohio-class submarines. The new submarines are expected to operate through the 2080s.

“This is the Navy’s most important program and establishing a new PEO today will meet tomorrow’s challenges head on,” Geurts said in a statement.

Artist rendering of the future Columbia-class nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarine (SSBN), which will replace the Ohio-class submarines. (Illustration: U.S. Navy)
Artist rendering of the future Columbia-class nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarine (SSBN), which will replace the Ohio-class submarines. (Illustration: U.S. Navy)

Moving from initial funding to construction, development and testing to serial production “will be crucial to meeting the National Defense Strategy and building the Navy the nation needs,” he added.

Geurts told reporters PEO CLB is being set up now because “I think a leadership responsibility is always to look to the future. And as we look at how important submarines are to the National Defense Strategy, how many important submarine programs we have spinning up, my concern was with Columbia being our number one acquisition program and all the other submarine activity, did we have enough leadership bandwidth available to oversee and run all those programs simultaneously.”

The new program office will be run by Rear Adm. Scott Pappano, who previously assumed command of the Naval Undersea Warfare Center in December.

The Navy said the new PEO will not replace Columbia program manager Capt. Jon Rucker, but Rucker will report to PEO CLB instead of PEO Subs. PEO Columbia is planned to start up this month.

Geurts said while Rucker manages day to day design and construction, Pappano will work on the larger picture of interface with UK partners and the Strategic Systems Program, plan for tests, and build facilities.

The Navy said PEO CLB will work with resource sponsors, stakeholders, foreign partners, shipbuilders and suppliers to meet national priorities and deliver and sustain capacity.

The UK is working with the U.S. Navy to share common systems on their new SSBN Dreadnought program.

Geurts noted PEO CLB will remain part of Team Subs and work with PEO Submarines and Naval Sea Systems Command’s (NAVSEA) In-Service Submarine Directorate (SEA 07) on submarine and affiliated programs, including life cycle support.

Geurts said PEO Columbia, NAVSEA 07, and PEO Submarines form Team Submarines. “I’ve chosen those leaders very specifically, for their ability to work across and work as a team to deliver the capability. They each have their own focus but they’ve got to work as a team because that is a very integrated and interconnected enterprise.”

“Our submarine enterprise is very integrated and interconnected. And so what we did not want to do is isolate Columbia because there’s a lot of connections, common parts, common activities going across from Virginia (SSN submarines). So the way I would characterize this is you know I have a team submarines view of the world.” Guerts continued.

“We have PEO Columbia focused on finishing up the design, getting into construction, and managing that very complex program with its UK counterparts. We have our in-service submarine team, NAVSEA 07, their focus is on submarine maintenance and ensuring we can get submarines maintained and working through all the issues and challenges and opportunities associated with that. And then PEO Submarines under [Rear Adm. David] Goggins, they will have Virginia, a lot of the common elements between all the various programs, and technologies associated with it.”

NAVSEA 07 provides research, development, test and evaluation (RDT&E) as well as hull, mechanical and engineering (HM&E) systems engineering and fleet support services to in-service submarine forces.

The Navy noted the first Columbia-class vessel is planned to start construction in FY ’21 with the USS Columbia (SSBN-826). It will then deliver in FY ’28 and go on patrol in 2031.

The Navy’s announcement underscored the Columbia program “is a critical shipbuilding program and must deliver on time to meet U.S. Strategic Command nuclear deterrence requirements due to the Ohio-class submarines reaching maximum extended service life.”

The Ohio-class boats are set to start retiring in 2027, after the Navy extends their service lives from 30 to 42 years.

Geurts noted given the high priority of the Columbia-class, he “wanted to ensure we supported that team with our best acquisition leadership and supported the program manager with the full array of capabilities that we need in that program to allow it to succeed.”

While Geurts said he wants PEO CLB to help smooth work on upcoming issues or challenges, he highlighted this is not “in reaction to anything that’s happened in the past. It’s really a recognition for all of the hard work we’ve got going in the future.”

The change is geared for a few years in the future “when we’ve got the first Columbia in production, we;re doing two a yr Virginia, we’ve got SSN(X) starting up, we’ve got a lot of technology efforts going up, and ensuring that we had a senior leader focused every day on delivering our number one acquisition program, a senior leader focused every day on all the other things going on with submarines, and a senior leader focused every day on maintaining our submarines,” Geurts said.

General Dynamics [GD] Electric Boat (GDEB) is building the Columbia-class subs. Last year their vendor, BWX Technologies [BWX], revealed botched welding jobs on 12 missile tubes for the submarine, including seven flawed tubes delivered to GDEB (Defense Daily, Aug. 7, 2018).

Fixing the tubes ultimately cost BWXT $40 million on a contract worth $75 million for 26 total tubes, with BWXT Chief Executive Officer Rex Geveden blaming inadequate welding techniques for the problem (Defense Daily, Nov. 8, 2018).

Both the Columbia and UK Dreadnaught-class submarines plan to use the 45 feet tall and 87 inch in diameter Common Missile Compartment tubes. Each Columbia is planned to have 16 tubes, a reduction from the 20 on each current Ohio-class submarine.

By last month, BWXT was only 15 percent through its planned fix, the company’s chief financial officer told investors on a conference call (Defense Daily, Feb. 26).

Then, last week, Defense Department officials gave conflicting assessments of Columbia issues and timelines.

Director of Undersea Warfare (N97) Rear Adm. John Tammen said during a Heritage Foundation panel that this fix will not consume the “many months of margin left in that program.” In contrast, Air Force Gen. John Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, told a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the same day he was “very concerned” how much margin the welding problem would consume while GDEB was rushing to start building SSBN-826 in 2021 (Defense Daily, Feb. 26).

Hyten said he was concerned the program has so little margin in its schedule and given the welding issue if “you’re eating margin and not putting margin in, that causes me concern.”

Similarly, in November, Tammen, Director of Undersea Warfare (N97), warned “there really is no margin for the Ohio to Columbia transition” (Defense Daily, Nov. 9, 2018).

The Navy estimates it will cost about $130 billion to build the 12 Columbia-class submarines while operating the vessels will cost over $265 billion.