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GAO Report on Columbia-Class Ballistic Missile Submarine Technology Maturity

The following is a December 2017 Government Accountability Office report, Columbia Class Submarine: Immature Technologies Present Risks to Achieving Cost, Schedule, and Performance Goals.

From the report:

Additional development and testing are required to demonstrate the maturity of several Columbia class submarine technologies that are critical to performance, including the Integrated Power System, nuclear reactor, common missile compartment, and propulsor and related coordinated stern technologies (see figure). As a result, it is unknown at this point whether they will work as expected, be delayed, or cost more than planned. Any unexpected delays could postpone the deployment of the lead submarine past the 2031 deadline.

Further, the Navy underrepresented the program’s technology risks in its 2015 Technology Readiness Assessment (TRA) when it did not identify these technologies as critical. Development of these technologies is key to meeting cost, schedule, and performance requirements. A reliable TRA serves as the basis for realistic discussions on how to mitigate risks as programs move forward from the early stages of technology development. Not identifying these technologies as critical means Congress may not have had the full picture of the technology risks and their potential effect on cost, schedule, and performance goals as increasing financial commitments were made. The Navy is not required to provide Congress with an update on the program’s progress, including its technology development efforts, until fiscal year 2020—when $8.7 billion for lead ship construction will have already been authorized. Periodic reporting on technology development efforts in the interim could provide decision makers assurances about the remaining technical risks as the Navy asks for increasing levels of funding.

Consistent with GAO’s identified best practices, the Navy intends to complete much of the submarine’s overall design prior to starting construction to reduce the risk of cost and schedule growth. However, the Navy recently awarded a contract for detail design while critical technologies remain unproven—a practice not in line with best practices that has led to cost growth and schedule delays on other programs. Proceeding into detail design and construction with immature technologies can lead to design instability and cause construction delays. The Navy plans to accelerate construction of the lead submarine to compensate for an aggressive schedule, which may lead to future delays if the technologies are not fully mature before construction starts, planned for 2021.

  • Duane

    Seems like a little too much handwringing in this report to Congress concerning the maturity of several key technologies. The shrouded pump jet propulsors have been in use for at least four decades, starting with the British Swiftsure subs, then the Seawolf and then the Virginia class, NR has only been designing, building and operating nuclear reactors on submarines with continuously evolving designs for nearly 70 years now. They can handle this one too, even if their design and testing procedures have also evolved. The integrated power system is a new means of powering our nuclear subs, but while the IPS designs for the Zumwalts aren’t exact models for a sub plant, the technology itself is mostly there.The X-stern is different, but I would expect that it has been extensively tested via modeling, both computerized and physical tank testing.

    Yes, because all the technologies haven’t quite gotten to level 7 maturity yet, there is some added risk. Given the need to start replacing Ohio class boats in the not very distant future, however, it seems reasonable to proceed as the Navy now plans, and within a couple of years the maturity will be there if it isn’t quite there today.

    • Stephen

      X-stern was tested on the Albacore, as well as the streamline shape adapted with the Skipjacks. Ohio was built with early 70s technology; so many delays in the Trident program…

    • FelixA9

      “Seems like a little too much handwringing in this report to Congress concerning the maturity of several key technologies. ”

      “It’s never to early to start the panty wringing.” is practically the motto over at POGO and the GAO.

  • FelixA9

    “However, the Navy recently awarded a contract for detail design while
    critical technologies remain unproven—a practice not in line with best
    practices that has led to cost growth and schedule delays on other
    programs.”

    One sees this trotted out regularly by parties such as the GAO, POGO, etc. One can’t help but wonder how they expect anything to GET proven without, you know, proving it. It certainly won’t proven by doing nothing.

  • Marauder 2048

    The outfit density of the Columbia class is projected to be much lower than the attack boats so many
    of GAO’s concerns by analogy are invalid.