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.”
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.