A Navy admiral and the head of U.S. Strategic Command sent conflicting signals in Washington on Tuesday about whether a botched welding job on long-lead parts of the Columbia-class submarine could spell delay for the Navy’s top procurement.
Columbia vendor BWX Technologies [BWXT], which reported record earnings this week on early Columbia work, incorrectly welded 12 Columbia missile tubes over the summer. As of Tuesday, the company was about 15 percent of the way through its planned fix, David Black, its chief financial officer told investors on a conference call.
The fix will not consume the “many months of margin left in that program,” Rear Adm. John Tammen, director of the undersea warfare division in the office of the chief of naval operations, said Tuesday in a panel discussion hosted by the Heritage Foundation here.
But just down the road from Heritage, Air Force Gen. John Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, told senators he was “very concerned” about how much margin the welding issue would consume at a time when prime contractor General Dynamics Electric Boat [GD] is hustling to start construction on the first ballistic missile submarine in 2021.
“I’ve gone with Adm. Caldwell, head of navy nuclear reactors, up to the shipyard at Electric Boat and done a deep dive,” Hyten said during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. “And when I went through that, I have to be honest, Senator, I was very concerned because there was so little margin in the overall schedule.”
Like Tammen, Hyten did not say exactly how much margin the welding mishap had consumed. However, the general told Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), if “you’re eating margin and not putting margin in, that causes me concern.”
Columbia is the Navy’s top-priority procurement. The service plans to replace its current fleet of 14 Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarines with 12 Columbia-class submarines, the first of which would go into service in 2031, the Navy estimates.
New House Armed Services Chair Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) has indicated he wants to cut spending on the planned 30-year nuclear modernization and maintenance program started by the Barack Obama administration in 2016.
Smith has centered his rhetoric on planned intercontinental ballistic missile programs helmed by Boeing [BA] and Northrop Grumman [NOC], but one panelist at Heritage here warned that House Democrats might set Columbia in their sites too, in upcoming budget negotiations for the 2020 fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.
“I think you’re going to see a lot of discussion on the Hill this session about ‘why do we need 12,” Bryan Clark, senior fellow, at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, said on Tuesday’s panel. Clark is a former submariner who was was a special assistant to the chief of naval operations before he retired from the Navy in 2007.
BWX Technologies, Lynchburg, Va., estimates it will start building the nuclear reactor to power the first Columbia sub under a roughly $2-billion naval reactors contract the company expects the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration to finalize in March.
Like the Ohio boats, Columbia would carry Trident II-D5 missiles built by Lockheed Martin [LMT] and tipped with W76 nuclear warheads provided by the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration. Most of those will be city-busting W76-1 warheads with an estimated 100 kiloton yield. A small number of them, however, could be lower-yield W76-2 warheads, the first of which the civilian agency declared war-ready last week. The Department of Energy plans to deliver the first W76-2, with an estimated 6.5 kiloton yield, to the Navy by Sept. 30.
The Navy estimates it will cost about $130 billion to build the whole Columbia fleet. Operating the fleet into the 2080s will cost more than $265 billion, the service estimates.
Vivienne Machi, staff report with WC Monitor affiliate publication Defense Daily, contributed to this story from Washington.