Home » News & Analysis » Columbia-class Submarine Program Passes Milestone B Decision, Can Begin Detail Design


Columbia-class Submarine Program Passes Milestone B Decision, Can Begin Detail Design

An undated artist's rendering of the planned Columbia-class submarine. Naval Sea Systems Command Image

An undated artist’s rendering of the planned Columbia-class submarine. Naval Sea Systems Command Image

The Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine program passed its Milestone B decision review and can move into detail design, an official told USNI News.

These SSBNs should cost about $8 billion apiece, Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.), whose district includes the prime contractor, told USNI News today after reading the acquisition review documents. That figure that is higher than the Navy’s previously cost estimate but is calculated differently. Most recently the Navy said it expected the lead ship to cost $10.4 billion – including $4.2 billion in detail design and non-recurring engineering work, as well as $6.2 billion for ship construction – and follow-on ships to cost $5.2 billion, all in 2010 dollars. The $8 billion per boat figure spreads the design and engineering cost evenly across the 12 boats in the class instead of consolidating it in the cost of the lead ship, and it is also calculated in 2017 dollars, which complicates the comparison.

Additional details about the Columbia class’s cost and schedule are documented in the program’s acquisition decision memorandum (ADM) but have not yet been made public.

A defense official told USNI News that Pentagon acquisition chief Frank Kendall signed the ADM today and approved the program for Milestone B, as well as designated it a major defense acquisition program.

The submarine program, formerly called the Ohio Replacement Program, was set for a Milestone B review in August, at which time the Navy would present an updated cost estimate for the subs. But Navy and Pentagon officials decided to delay meeting with the Defense Acquisition Board for the review until they could schedule a one-day deep-dive at the General Dynamics Electric Boat shipyard in Groton, Conn., to work out some final details on cost, design, production readiness and more. A shipyard visit was held in early October and the Navy was eyeing a meeting with the DAB in the first week of November. However, Kendall visited Electric Boat again in early November for a final visit and today signed off on the program.

“This is not just checking a box, this is setting a roadmap for the program for years to come,” Rep. Courtney told USNI News of the milestone’s importance.

The Columbia-class program is finally poised to move forward, after waiting for four action items from the Pentagon and Congress. The program was awaiting the Fiscal Year 2017 budget, which not only included the funds to get started on detail design but also the legal mechanism that moves the program from the research and development budget to the shipbuilding budget. With Congress passing a continuing resolution instead of an actual appropriations bill, there were concerns that the program would not be able to advance into the Navy shipbuilding budget on time, but when lawmakers extended the CR last month they included an “anomaly” that allowed the Columbia-class program to stay on track.

“On Monday the Treasury deposited the anomaly funds that were in the CR, the $773 million, into the NSBDF, the National Sea Based Deterrence Fund – so that (fund) has now been activated officially with real deposits and withdrawals,” Courtney said. The NSBDF was set up in 2014 despite opposition from some lawmakers, and while more and more cost-saving authorities have been added to the fund, it hasn’t actually had any money put into it until tis week.

“There’s been some skeptics about whether or not that was just going to be an empty vessel forever, but the statute on the books, which mandates that funding for the Columbia class ‘shall’ be paid through NSBDF, obviously made its way up the food chain to the Treasury,” Courtney continued.
“The deposit, which occurred this week, is going to move quickly. Once the Milestone B is released today, those funds are pretty much going to go out immediately, tomorrow or the next day, to EB and some of the other vendors. And I think that’s another significant event because, A, its goal of trying to take pressure off the shipbuilding account is now really happening, and B, looking at the milestone B cost estimates, the authorities granted in the NSBDF – the incremental funding, multiyear procurement, economic order quantity provisions and then this year’s continuous production language – CBO and CRS have told us that those are great opportunities to gain even more savings than I think is even projected in Milestone B. So as I said, the deposit in that account is, I think, a really important event that shows the positive effects of the NSBDF are going to really unfold.”

With the dollars in place and the legal ability to spend shipbuilding money instead of research and development money secured, the Columbia-class program just needed the Milestone B decision to be finalized, which happened today, and the actual award of the detail design contract to Electric Boat. The Navy could not immediately provide comment on when the contract might be awarded.

Electric Boat has taken steps to prepare itself to stay on track during Columbia-class construction. Working with local, state and federal government entities, the shipyard secured a manufacturing pipeline grant about a year and a half ago to fund training in advanced manufacturing and other required fields at technical high schools and community colleges. Courtney said that about a month ago Electric Boat revived an apprenticeship program that had been inactive for years, in advance of a hiring surge at the yard in the coming years.

Courtney said the collaboration between the shipyard, local unions and others is aimed at “trying to get kids started as early as high school with joint programs with community colleges, to get them a running head start in terms of advance manufacturing. It’s getting picked up in the tech schools themselves, which are the high school-aged kids. And they also started programs for older workers, they call it the Outside Machinists program,” which is a six- to eight-week course that takes adults from other professions and gives them the skills they’ll need to succeed in a shipyard apprenticeship program.

“It’s an all-hands-on-deck approach that is reaching back as far as high school and junior high school even to get kids thinking about this as a really positive occupation that you can support yourself and a family,” Courtney said.

  • dpaul

    Anybody believing these numbers is delusional, expect a price tag of $250,000,000,000 each. The question is can the taxpayer keep paying, will the general economy support it and is there a better, cheaper way to complete the triad concept?

    • NavySubNuke

      LOL $250B — you realize we have actually built SSBNs before and are still currently building submarines so we actually do have some idea about what these things cost right?

      • dpaul

        I have faith in the procurement process to make anything possible and these boats won’t be like older boats now will they.

        • NavySubNuke

          Actually they will – they are going to be armed with the same missiles as the current OHIO SSBNs and are going to utilize a lot of the systems and technology for the virginia class. The “new” systems have all already been prototyped. You don’t take chances with SSBNs – you make sure they are on time and will work.

          • Niki Ptt

            And what? You figure they’ll take the pumpjet of a Virginia and stick it on a Columbia?

            A different hull implies a whole different propulsion system, including a brand new design of pumpjet. The only thing in common is the technology, and that’s not as much as it would seem…

          • NavySubNuke

            You should try reading my entire statement next time – it will help you not look so foolish. You’ll notice I said: “The “new” systems have all already been prototyped.”
            Also, you realize there is a lot more to the submarine than the propulsion system right?
            There are things like the fire control system (for torpedos) and periscopes and radio masts that can be copied exactly from Virginia. There are things like the fire control system (for the ballistic missiles) and navigation system that can be copied over from the OHIOs.

        • Horn

          Yes, they will, with a few exceptions. All the technology that’s being added though is either the next evolution or is already proven on other platforms. The SeaWolf submarines seem to have been the exception on overestimating costs for submarines, and a lot of that had to due with Congress dropping the number down to 3, similar to the DDG 1000s.

          • USNVO

            I am always amazed at submariners ability to dismiss the past with a wave of the hand. It is like no one alive or paid any attention. No submarine class since at least the LA class has come in on projection.
            Let’s see:
            LA Class – over budget projections and late. USN Bought a huge number and prices came down over time, everyone forgot the beginning of the program.
            Ohio Class – over budget projections and late.
            Seawolf Class – way over budget and late. Everyone remembers this one but…
            Virginia Class – way over budget and late (does anyone note a trend) so much so that the Virginia was more expensive than the Connecticut! People forget that with all the “savings” from the Virginia class it is just now achieving what the first ones were supposed to cost (amazing what re-baselining and selective memory can do for program execution).

            Having said all that, generally submarine programs have done no worse than other shipbuilding programs despite suffering from over optimistic projections. Certainly, they won’t be close to some made up number bearing no relation to reality.

      • Anthony Goldsmith

        You know we are building new attack boats now so….no…they won’t cost 250 billion. The price may go up, but this is the single most important part of the Triad. It’s survivable and allows us to have a less reactive unclear defense posture.

      • old guy

        Part of the problem is, Not Sufficient Consideration for Upgrade and Refit. Subs take considerably less wear and tear than surface ships and could easily have 60 to 80 year lives. if SLEP is part of the design process.

        • NavySubNuke

          I’ve never run the numbers on that myself but I just don’t see how that is possible without catastrophically expensive overhauls. It is pretty hard to change out the pressure hull midway through life. Never mind the added cost of installing pipes thick enough to survive 80 years of fluid flow erosion.

          • old guy

            Ever hear of the B52?

          • NavySubNuke

            Yes – and if you are about to say that re-skinning an aircraft is in anyway close to redoing the pressure hull of a submarine please save yourself the key strokes because it isn’t.

          • old guy

            I was on the trials of the OHIO, (733)_ An engineer I spoke to said,”Barring collisions, the pressure hull was a 100 yr. design.”

          • NavySubNuke

            Consider we have never operated a nuclear submarine beyond about 35 years that was a bold statement on his part and one NAVSEA doesn’t agree with since they pegged OHIO hull life to 50 years. And that doesn’t even begin to cover the actual systems of the ship.

          • old guy

            I agree on systems going obsolete, worn out andreplacedd, but the structure, hulls and components that can be checked out, rebuilt upgraded and reused would provide a considerable saving.
            What I call the SWIPE program, is the basis for scrapping useful ships.
            SWIPE is Shipyard Welfare Incentive Progra,m, Expensive

          • NavySubNuke

            Even if you could get the hull to last 80 years I don’t see how you could get the fluid systems to last that long. And there just isn’t room to make it so you can cut out and replace all of the fluid systems in the engineroom when the pipewall thickness gets too low. Never mind the laughable idea that a platform that had the required stealth at the time of construction would retain it 60 – 80 years later. Even 40 is a pipe dream — there is a reason the Navy is upgrading the OHIO class sonar systems with VLFA’s after all.

          • old guy

            I will not go into stealth systems like Prairie Masker and its followers, but all are adaptable. Hydraulics are easily checked and replaced, (trays) Electronics in the 733 have probably been upgraded many times already. Again the reason is SWUPE.

          • NavySubNuke

            PM isn’t going to work on boats. I wasn’t talking about hydraulics – I was thinking of the primary and secondary. Agree electronics are rather easy.

    • Ctrot

      Hint: if you want to be taken seriously reign in your hyperbole. Will the cost be higher than projected, most likely. But by a factor of 200x? Don’t be ridiculous.

      • dpaul

        Check your math and blame public education.

        • Ctrot

          Nothing wrong with my math, just fat fingers. I was being generous at only accusing you of being guilty of a factor of TWENTY times hyperbole when you were actually guilty of over 30x.

          • dpaul

            Certainly 20 or 30 times current estimates are within the realm of past performance from weapon system developers and producers. I expect the new administration to double down on military procurement with a strong dose of endemic crony capitalism to boot.

          • Not even Norm Augustine’s cost curve has that kind of upward slope.

          • dpaul

            Obviously I have more respect for crony capitalism than you do.

          • Ctrot

            Name a major weapons system that cost 30 times more than estimated, ever. Just one.

          • old guy

            EASY. V-22 if you include development costs.

          • Ctrot

            Wrong. V-22 has cost about $36 billion, total. At no time was it ever thought to be or claimed to be a $1-$2 billion program.

          • old guy

            When I was in Navy’in the early 90s it was pitched as a 1.4 to 1.6 B, development and 60 million per copy in serial production. I fought it with Gen Krulak, to no avail. Quite a lot for a 24 passenger vehicle. Not.quite your criteria, but close. It may be a record.

          • Ctrot

            No one ever thought V-22 program could be developed for $1.6B. The first request for development money was for $2.5 billion and everyone knew that that wasn’t going to cover the entire development cost.

            A projected cost per aircraft of $60 million is about right, and currently a new V-22 can be ordered for about $75 million.

            However when all R&D money etc is figured into the total cost for each of the 250 or so V-22’s that have been produced the total cost per aircraft comes to around $144 million each. That is still a far cry from being “20-30 times” more than what was projected as was the original claim of dpaul. For that claim to be correct R&D alone would have to have cost $75 billion (more than has been spent in total) and cost per aircraft would have to be $1.8 BILLION.

            As I first stated, the claim is pure hyperbole.

        • Not math. Merely arithmetic. Then again, they haven’t taught arithmetic since electronic calculators became cheap.

          • dpaul

            I still have my slide rules.

          • old guy

            I still have my Marchant calculater

          • dpaul

            Those are antiques and deadly weapons if they fall on your foot.

          • old guy

            When I was at C.A.L. in the ’50s we composed a march you could play on the Marchant by dividing 55115 by 1

  • Александр Ермаков

    “A March 2016 GAO report assessing selected major DOD weapon acquisition programs states
    that the estimated total acquisition cost of the Columbia class program is about $97.0 billion in
    constant FY2016 dollars, including about $12.0 billion in research and development costs and
    about $85.1 billion in procurement costs”

    8*12=96

    96…97 – who cares

    • old guy

      That comes to 175 Billion with changes.

  • tiger

    The Royal Navy is building new Tridents as well. Any chance we can get a common design and drop the costs between both Navies?

    • Paul

      They are using a common design modular missile section and there may be other synagies as well.

    • old guy

      Nah, they all have right-hand drive.

  • Ed L

    I deleted my previous post after rereading the article. I still have a couple of questions. Why do the SSBN’s have to be so big?
    Displacement:20,810 long tons (submerged)[
    Length:561 feet (171 m)
    Beam:43 feet (13 m)
    Propulsion:Nuclear reactor, turbo-electric drive, pump-jet Range:Unlimited
    Complement:155 (accommodation)[1]
    Sensors and
    processing systems:
    Enlarged version of Virginia LAB sonar
    Armament:16 × Trident D5
    why not 400 feet or less and 12 missiles. similar in size to the George Washington SSBN’s or 8 missiles. that is more than enough to lay waste to part of the world like a country the size of Brazil or Europe.

    • old guy

      How gauche. Don’t you know the Russkies have a 32K ton TYPHON class?

      • Ed L

        Okay The Russians have a 32K ton SSBN. but isn’t that hard to hide?

  • Dave

    The second flight of the new Russian Borei class SSBN will have 20 missile tubes instead of only 16 in the new Columbia.

    Are we building ourselves into an inferior position in the balance between the number of missiles and warheads we can put to sea -vs- the Russians?

    • Dennis Myers

      Each submarine becomes a loud noisy target when launch begins. Having fewer tubes means we can have more subs. Better resilience.