Home » Budget Industry » Columbia Class Ballistic Missile Sub On Schedule, Down to $7.2 Billion Apiece

Columbia Class Ballistic Missile Sub On Schedule, Down to $7.2 Billion Apiece

An undated artist’s rendering of the planned Columbia-class submarine (SSBN-826). Naval Sea Systems Command Image

The Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine program (SSBN-826) is coming down in cost and staying on schedule despite an early challenge, program officials said last week.

After moving into engineering and manufacturing development (EMD) at the beginning of 2017 and beginning early construction prototyping activities, the SSBN program is proving it can leverage all the tools at its disposal to take cost and schedule out of the Navy’s top acquisition priority.

The program was giving a $8-billion affordability cap, and when the Milestone B decision was made in January to move into EMD, the program was sitting at about $7.3 billion for the average procurement unit cost (APUC) across all 12 planned submarines, Program Executive Officer for Submarines Rear Adm. Michael Jabaley said at the Naval Submarine League’s annual conference.

“Through innovative legislative authority and contracting techniques, we’ve already reduced cost by $80 million per hull, to bring APUC down to $7.21 (billion),” Jabaley said.
“So that was a combination of missile tube continuous production … and advance construction, which is pulling key construction activities to the left. Really the focus of that was to reduce the risk of not delivering on time, but it had an added benefit of savings as well.”

Program Executive Officer for Submarines Rear Adm. Michael Jabaley

Congress gave the program several new authorities to help with the Columbia class. Lawmakers allowed for continuous production of the missile tubes – a shared venture with the British Navy – so that manufacturing rates can stay level rather than the ups and downs that would come along with buying them in ship sets based on U.S. and U.K. sub acquisition timelines. Lawmakers also created a National Sea-Based Deterrence Fund and created opportunities for the Navy to save on common components shared between the Columbia program, the Virginia-class attack submarine and the Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carrier.

Jabaley said the Navy still hopes for a few additional authorities, including continuous production for components beyond the missile tubes – but leveraging the existing authorities plus potentially adding a few more creates a situation where “we have the ability to get the APUC below $7 billion. That is a stretch goal, but again, as I said, when you understand that the cost of this program is significant, then we really need to do everything we can to buy margin back into the program both in terms of cost and schedule.”

Jabaley would not elaborate on what other authorities he wanted from Congress, but he told USNI News that “what you always have to balance is the opportunity cost, because nothing comes for free – all of those efforts require investment in the near-term. You have to put money in to pull activities to the left, to smooth the workload at the shipbuilders and the vendors, and you get it back in savings beyond the [five-year Future Years Defense Program], but from a budgetary standpoint that’s money you have to invest and you can’t buy something else, whether it’s another ship, another squadron of airplanes, whatever. So those trades are made all the time, first in the Navy. The work that we do with Congress is to ensure they understand what our intention is, and then if necessary provide the legislative authority to do it.”

Jabaley said early work is taking place now at General Dynamics Electric Boat to prototype the “quad pack” construction method that will be used to build these large submarines.

“This process is critical to the ability to build the ship in seven years, 84 months,” he said.
“It is fundamentally different from how we did it on [the Ohio-class SSBNs], and by starting it now, prototyping it early, working all the bugs out, it’ll provide significant benefit down the road.”

“We’re on a very aggressive design and construction schedule with no margin; we can’t shift the schedule any further right,” Naval Reactors Director Adm. James Caldwell said at the conference, adding that testing should span until early 2019, when procurement is set to begin.

Caldwell said the program is still on track despite a challenge earlier this year with the electric drive’s motor – not one intended for use on a submarine, but the pre-production model meant to support testing.

“We have faced a challenge in the manufacturing of the pre-production full-sized motor that we’re going to use for testing. It was not a technology challenge; it was a manufacturing challenge. We addressed the cause on that and modified (the schedule) – we built the schedule, by the way, to have a good amount of margin in it, meaning months that we could use if we had a challenge that we found,” he told USNI News during a question and answer session.
“We’ve re-torqued that schedule, we’ve approached the scheduling in an alternate way, and we still are on track to deliver the final motor well before the required in-yard date for the shipyard. So the testing … will start on the components that we have available in December of this year and will continue through next year. So there is a delay – and again, that’s the pre-production motor. That’s the motor we’re going to use to learn from, full-sized, just like we would pretend to build if we’re building the ship; we’re going to do a design turn, and then we’re going to build a final production motor, and that will be the one that will also be tested in our test facility.”

Caldwell told USNI News after his speech that Naval Reactors is responsible for the life-of-ship fuel and the electric drive, both of which are still on track to deliver ahead of need at the shipyards. He said the Navy and Congress are supporting the program with adequate funding but added that the submarine community needs to keep being vocal about what it needs to keep the Columbia program on track.

“It’s a complex project, it’s a very big submarine – it’s two and a half times the size of a Virginia-class submarine, and we’re going to build it in the same timeframe as the first Virginia class that we built – so the challenge is big,” he said.

  • Chesapeakeguy

    What happened here? There were several comments posted on here earlier, including one of my own. Now it says “Start the conversation” Did someone beam them up?

  • NavySubNuke

    Good news. This program is critical to the future of us maintaining a safe, secure, and effective nuclear deterrent. I just hope we aren’t cutting too much capability, capability we will need in the future, just to save a few bucks today. The choice of going to 16 missile tubes is an example — I really hope it was worth cutting 20% of the missile battery to save 2% of the cost.

    • Duane

      The number of tubes was decided by the Navy based upon a classified analysis that considered many factors, with cost being one of them. Given the cost constraints on all our military forces, cost is not a minor factor. Every dollar spent on a Columbia is a dollar not available for other ships or weapons.

      The number of warheads each D-5 carries is highly variable – between 8 and 12, so there is considerable flexibility in the number of warheads that can be physically carried per deployed SSBN, subject to strategic arms limitations.

      If the deterrent environment worsens substantially in the coming years, and given the long timeframe over which the Colombias are going to be built (the first one is supposed to begin “pre-construction” next year), then we could elect a few years from now to extend the new construction hulls to 20 tubes, because the tubes are manufactured in modular clusters of 4. Adding modules to new construction submarines is something we’ve been doing ever since we built the very first SSBN, the Washington, which started out as an SSN to which a missile compartment was inserted. We’re doing it today with the Virginia SSNs, to which we are inserting Virginia Payload Modules.

      • NavySubNuke

        “The number of tubes was decided by the Navy”
        That is true – and STRATCOM went kicking and screaming all the way to congress to get it changed but lost because at the end of the day cost prevailed over operational considerations.
        “the number of warheads each D-5 carries is highly variable – between 8 and 12”
        Actually they can carry less than 8 if we want and we never tested or deployed with 12 since if we did they would have accounted for 12 under START counting rules – instead they only counted for 8.
        And sure we **could** extend later hulls to 20 tubes if we had to but not without extra cost and risk. It isn’t as easy as just slapping another quad pack in — we’d need to redo all the missile’s hotel services (heating and cooling, missile gas, etc.), we’d also probably need to redo the missile compensation system too. And of course these boats, even without another quad pack, are going to be as large as the OHIOs today — can we put an extra quad pack and still fit in the berthing areas and drydocks at KB and Bangor?
        And so I go back to my original statement — I really hope it was worth cutting 20% of the missile battery to save 2% of the cost.

        • Duane

          The extra hull volume of the Columbias is to house upgraded systems, including defense systems. If you want to shave costs by making the Columbia’s less survivable in an increasingly challenging ASW environment, that would be penny wise and pound foolish.

          As for how difficult it would be to insert another module, it is not difficult at all. As I wrote above, we’ve been doing that since the very first SSBN was born, and we’re going it today. In fact, the way we’ve been building all submarines is modular, expressly for the purpose of being able to readily insert differing, or more, modules. as well as to reduce construction costs. It’s what our sub shipyards do as a matter of routine. We did similarly to a couple of our 637 class SSNs during the Cold War, adding compartments that no other SSN had. It’s just dollars and time.

          • NavySubNuke

            Oh duane, I do love your opinions and how sure of yourself you are even after all the times I have pointed out how wrong you are.
            If you actually considered the full implications of what was discussed in this article you would realize that there is no “time” to be had — we can’t afford for even a single Columbia to be late. We also don’t just have unlimited funding available so “dollars” is a big deal – that is how we got into this situation in the first place.
            So the fact that it is “just dollars and time” is actually a big deal because dollars and time are our two biggest constraints.

          • El Kabong

            What’s that Duane?

            The LCS can’t do it better?

      • The number of tubes is decided by the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty. The Navy should be required to build up to that limit. Our enemies surely will – and they will also cheat.

        • Duane

          The Navy made the decision to go with 16 tubes vs. 20 tubes, under oversight by Congress. They can also change that decision if they want to as we build out the Colombia class, as I explained elsewhere in this thread. The Navy is unlikely to build more Colombias than the 12 now planned, because it is more cost effective to add another tube module than to build another two or three more subs.

          The number of launchers is set by the New START treaty, and we have 100% today of the numbers allowed, which is 800, including both deployed and non-deployed, and includes all SLBMs and ICBMs. As we gradually change out the Ohios for the Colombias, move to fewer tubes on fewer subs, but this is at least partially made up by having more effective (deployable) tubes because the nominal 4-year mid life refueling overhaul for the Ohios is replaced by a 2-year non-refueling overhaul. We can make up any difference by having more ICBMs, or we can build more Columbia class boats (more than the 12 now in the plan) or we can add more tubes to the Columbias. There is quite a bit of flexibility under NewSTART.

  • Ed L

    Do I hear 6 Billion?

    • Christopher Chen

      Hey subcon it out to China and it can be built for 4

  • Duane

    This is what you get when you have a mature ship development program going through incremental upgrades that allows the next batch of ships to benefit from recent improvements. The Colombia class benefits from lessons learned and technologies developed on not only the previous boomer class, the Ohios, but also from the current SSN class, the Virginias. Also, NR has been a very high performance organization since its founding at the end of the 1940s by Admiral Rickover, with high standards and highly organized management systems.

    We can’t always proceed with this model of ship development, particularly with respect to surface warfare where the threats are changing swiftly and radically, as compared to the rather stable progression of submarine warfare threats.

  • NavySubNuke

    Poor Duane – the next time you show me up will be the first time. Have you figured out who actually developed the MRAP yet by the way?
    And yes, I know all about it which is why my first detailed response to you included the many key issues that would need to be considered before we could add a quad pack.
    And then I also pointed out why “time and dollars” are the two things we simply don’t have more of when it comes to Colubmia.
    Also, the British boats are going to have 12 tubes, not 8. 12/4 is 3 so there will be 3 quad packs, not just “two of the same”.
    Finally, I hope even someone of your age can realize why a missile gas system that is adequate for 16 tubes would also be adequate for 12 tubes but the same system might not actually be adequate for 20 tubes.
    I realize and agree that to someone of your level of knowledge and understanding this is just silly argumentation — but you should realize that to intelligent people who actually understand things like this that isn’t true.

  • Chesapeakeguy

    So the headline says that the cost is “down” to 7.2 billion dollars. Obviously there is a lot of work to be done and that price might not remain steady. But for the sake of discussion, let’s say that $7.2 billion is indeed the final cost per boat. Is that cost commensurate with what was paid for the Ohio class subs when they were designed and developed and built in the late 70s through the 80s? You know, what the cost ‘in 1981 dollars’, ‘adjustments for inflation’, etc.?

    Also, do the costs then and now (Ohio class introduction and when the Columbia’s come on board) reflect the costs of the infrastructure that was and possibly will be required for them? Weren’t Bangor, WA and Kings Bay, GA, specifically, constructed to handle and service the Ohio boats?

    • Curtis Conway

      AND they will have to be modified to handle the Columbia Class as they come on-line. Hope that developmental activity is well underway. Many facilities will just convert, but some will require new construction, and that concrete should be curing very soon.

      • We should be building a new Submarine Tender that could handle SSN maintenance tasks and park it next to a dry dock (like Philly). You could off load some of the maintenance that way and you wouldn’t need to get a whole shipyard labor force up to nuclear standards. Then we should build another tender for SSBNs. Could the Navy train that many submarine maintenance personnel? Your guess is as goods as mine.

        • Chesapeakeguy

          This month’s Proceedings has an informative article about how and why fleet support entities like tenders and forward bases that had facilities like floating dry docks have all but disappeared. An interesting read.

  • NavySubNuke

    “Those “key issues” are SOP for our naval shipyards”
    So many wrong things here to unpack:
    1. It isn’t a shipyard issue at all — it is a design issue to fix those things
    2. Once the decision is made and the design is complete and it is time to start construction isn’t a Naval shipyard issue at all since we don’t build submarines at Naval shipyards we build them at private shipyards.
    3. It isn’t SOP at all — there is no procedure to add another quad pack to Columbia since it has never been done before.
    And yes Washington was converted in construction but Washington wasn’t a Columbia and the conversion was carried out at a time when money was not an object and there was time for schedule slippage — two things that are not true about Columbia.
    You dodged my question by the way — have you figured out yet who actually developed the MRAP yet and how you were wrong (hint: it wasn’t the Army)?

  • NavySubNuke

    The PRIVATE shipyards (EB and Newport News) are the designers and builders —- not the Naval shipyards.
    And again, you CAN insert an extra module but it takes money and time and it is hardly SOP since it hasn’t been done since Jimmy Carter and before that it hadn’t been done in decades. Oh and by the way money and time are the exact two commodities we DON’T have for COLUMBIA.
    Awww poor Duane all hurt because I’ve once again proven you are speaking nonsense. But do go ahead and whine about how I’m the one who is ignorant in this conversation – I don’t mind you needing to lie to yourself.

    • The only thing Naval Shipyards have contributed to the Submarine Force recently is the Miami bar-b-que. I also remember the Mare Island Mud Puppy, but that was quite awhile ago.

      • NavySubNuke

        That and finishing the OHIO overhauls so late that we are actually going to be able to keep them in service longer and cut down some of the risk of Columbia coming on line late. I think it is the first time the Navy has ever been happy to have ships spend almost an extra year in overhaul.
        Although “happy” might not be the right term —- “not angry” is probably more accurate.

  • NavySubNuke

    Duh and yet you still got it wrong……
    No big deal though — I’m used to you getting simple and obvious facts wrong and then getting all huffy when it is pointed out to you.

  • NavySubNuke

    Which part did you get right again — the part where you incorrectly said it was the “Naval” shipyards? The part where you incorrectly said it was SOP? Or the part where you incorrectly said I thought I was the only one who thought of that stuff (something I never claimed)?
    Or is it the part where you incorrectly assume someone like me deserves a special award for explaining simple things to ignorant simpletons?

  • NavySubNuke

    “Your pathetic performance in this exchange is embarrasing. I feel embarrassed for you, writing so stupidly and pathetically defending your defective argument.”
    The funniest part about you posting this assessment of your own comments is that you spelled “embarrassing” wrong. Well that and your continued insistence that EB and Newport News are “Naval” shipyards even though that term is specific to Pearl Harbor, Puget Sound, Portsmouth, and Norfolk (and to be clear that is Norfolk Naval not Newport News)
    Here is a great description, albeit from 2013 on how the actual “Naval” Shipyards support the submarine fleet: [edited to remove link due to USNI policy] — just google “Naval shipyards” and the first result is the undersea warfare magazine from Fall 2013.
    Pretty funny given how the fact that since the “Naval” shipyards are so backed up Boise has to go to one of the private shipyards for her overhaul.
    —- This bit of wisdom brought to you by the guy who actually knew who designed and developed the MRAP as opposed to Duane who repeatedly and strenuously insisted it was the Army….

  • NavySubNuke

    Duane, your feeble attempts at insulting my intelligence ring pretty hallow considering how often I have to correct you on simple facts.
    I realize that you have to insult me to cover up your embarrassment over saying incorrect nonsense like the D5 can carry 8 – 12 warheads only but I hope you realize you are just lying to yourself when you say nonsense like that.
    “And oh by the way, your underlying arguments are still completely wrong.”
    Duane, as I said before I realize it seems that way to you but trust me to people who actually have working knowledge of this subject and understand what it is we are talking about the underlying arguments are valid and are a concern.

    • afriendoftheauthor

      Take it outside, boys. For the record, though, NavySubNuke wins this match in a TKO. Now goodbye if all you can contribute is personal insults.

      • NavySubNuke

        For the record I never insult anyone who hasn’t insulted me first – but thanks for awarding me the win 🙂

        • El Kabong

          I’ve always been told it’s not polite to pick on the handicapped, but Duaney does keep coming back for it….

          The sad life of a loser.

  • El Kabong

    Who developed the MRAP Duane?

  • El Kabong

    Who developed the MRAP, Duane?

  • El Kabong

    “Your pathetic performance in this exchange is embarrasing.”?

    Oh, the irony that’s lost on the illiterate…

  • El Kabong

    Answer the question, minion.

  • Brent Leatherman

    Holy cow, at that price, they’d better be using platinum for the planes…..ow

  • El Kabong

    You should be sorry, Duaney.

    Go troll somewhere else, while enjoying your life as an annoying gnat.

  • theCase

    AFA “Why the Columbia hull displaces the same an Ohio, but has less tubes…”, The “official” reason is the electric drive takes more room, plus they have operational needs forward. All true, but I believe another reason is sound quieting back aft via heavier machinery rafts and active sound cancelling using advanced hydraulics/electronics. No one talks about it, but that’s my guess…

  • joeyusa