NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The program manager for the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines said Tuesday while the boats have almost no margin for delays, he believes the submarines will be ready in time and that additional inspections of suppliers will continue.

At the top of his presentation here at the Navy league’s annual Sea Air Space Expo, Capt. John Rucker, program manager for the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine, said bluntly “we really have no margin for the lead ship, as well as every other ship” in the class.

An artist’s rendering of the U.S. Navy’s future Columbia-class submarine. (Photo: U.S. Navy )

While he admitted they have some margin in each step of the program, like most program schedules, “where we have no margin is that very, very end” because the Navy is already extending the current Ohio-class SSBNs to 42 years per submarine.

The Navy is transitioning from 14 Ohio-class SSBNS to 12 Columbia-class boats. The Navy plans to start building the first Columbia by Oct. 1, 2020. The prime contractor in General Dynamics Electric Boat [GD] (GDEB), while Huntington Ingalls Industry’s [HII] Newport News Shipbuilding (NNS) also builds significant parts of the vessel.

“We need those [Ohio] boats to hang around, but after that we don’t have the margin or the ability to extend them any further,” Rucker said.

One Ohio per year is set to start retiring in the 2026-27 timeframe while the first Columbia vessel is planned to start patrolling in FY 2031, just as the Navy will reach 10 SSBNs total. Thereafter, one Ohio continues retiring per year while one Columbia starts patrols per year.

Those 10 SSBNs will be maintained through the transition to the new class, but the Navy said this incurs “moderate risk” without dealing with major delays.

Rucker said they plan to have the first Columbia “out on patrol no later than Oct. 1 of 2030, so FY ’31. And telling you today, we’re planning to beat that.”

He said the Columbia’s average procurement cost is supposed to stay below $8 billion each and they are currently on track for $7.18 billion each in 2017 dollars. However, “if we don’t do our jobs to get the cost, the right reasonable cost for this platform, we are doing the Navy and the defense of the taxpayer a disservice because we are not able to buy other things we need to do.”

The Navy is currently undergoing prototyping design now and has set official construction to start by Oct. 1, 2020. Rucker said the shipbuilders have already started building with prototypes and some advanced construction, while Newport News Shipbuilding will mark the start of advanced construction with a ceremony on June 17.

Rucker said he thinks they can achieve their schedule and stay within margin because of how much advance construction and disclosures the program will have finished before construction starts. The Navy plans to build about 11 percent of the Columbia through advanced construction. He compared this to one percent for the Virginia-class submarines.

“So we are trying to get ahead of that curve, to de-risk this program, so that we can achieve that schedule.”

Rucker said the Navy has finished 100 percent of 420 ship specifications/requirements and is trying to get 100 percent ship arrangements finished by the time construction starts. Columbia currently has 97.5 percent of arrangements finished and 44 percent disclosures completed.

Arrangements and disclosures, combined, make up the detail design work on a ship, meaning 70 percent of the Columbia’s design is complete.

Rucker said the service is on track to finish 83 percent of design disclosures by the time construction starts, a much higher level than other recent large vessels. He noted Ohio had two percent of design disclosures done by the start of construction, Seawolf-class submarine had four percent, the Ford-class carrier had 27 percent, and the Virginia-class submarine has 43 percent.

“So that tells you how another thing we’re doing to de-risk this program, to manage cost, because that minimizes the change, you lock the design down, and it also ensures that you maintain schedule because you end up having a much higher design quality to allow the shipbuilder to build it. That’s where we are today,” Rucker said.

Rucker also said the Navy and shipbuilders will continue “more intrusive oversight” and inspections of the vendor base suppliers “in perpetuity” after the Navy found a supplier had missile tube welding issues last year.

“We do about two a month and we’ve so far completed 16 of them since last fall. We started with the missile tube vendors,” Rucker said.

Last year, BWX Technologies [BWXT] made welding mistakes on 12 missile tubes for the submarines, which cost it about $30 million. A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report last month found this issue consumed 15 of 23 months of schedule margin built in to the Columbia’s Common Missile Compartment program (Defense Daily, April 8).

The Columbia has 324 critical suppliers and Rucker said the Navy, GDEB and NNS have finished a joint verification of the suppliers and they will continue visiting suppliers to ensure work is proceeding properly.

“This is not just a quality thing, it’s capability, capacity – do they have the people, do they have the schedule, do they have the machines, all the stuff that we’re doing…to ensure that we get the supplier base where it needs to be. Not only to support Columbia but what we call the entire integrated enterprise plan across the entire nuclear shipbuilding.”

The nuclear shipbuilding enterprise covers the Columbia, Virginia-class submarines and Ford-class carriers.