Home » Budget Industry » Navy to Congress: Columbia-class Submarine Program Still on Schedule with Little Margin for Error

Navy to Congress: Columbia-class Submarine Program Still on Schedule with Little Margin for Error

The crew of USS Kentucky (SSBN-737) transits the Hood Canal as the boat returns to its homeport at Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor, Wash., following a routine strategic deterrent patrol on Feb. 20, 2018. US Navy Photo

Overheating problems with a test motor being developed Navy’s next nuclear ballistic missile submarine has not thrown the “no-margin-for-error” program off-schedule, senior service leaders have told Congress.

Testifying Tuesday before the House Armed Services seapower and projection forces subcommittee, Rear Adm. John Tammen Jr. said the problem, discovered before the motor arrived at Philadelphia “consumed considerable flex time” in the program. But “the risk is manageable and well in hand,” Rear Adm. Michael Jabaley, program executive officer for submarines, added.

Last week before the Senate Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, Navy nuclear programs director Adm. James Caldwell said “it required us to have another motor built” by the subcontractor. The overheating problem was traced to faulty insulation. The new motor has not yet been tested.

By overlapping some other testing in the program and other tweaks, the overall Columbia program is on schedule. “We’re managing it very tightly” to meet the 2021 date to begin construction, Caldwell said.

James Geurts, the assistant secretary for Research, Development and Acquisition, said at Tuesday’s hearing “early work on missile tubes” for the new submarine also was a factor in keeping to schedule. Also having 83 percent of the ship’s design done at this stage of production, versus 42 percent for Virginia-class at a comparable time helps the program’s on-time prospects.

Delivery for the first Columbia boomer is expected in 2031. The no-margin-for-error comes with that date because the first Ohioclass ballistic missile submarine is set to retire.

Caldwell termed the development of the life-of-the-ship nuclear core “a pretty big step for us” at the Senate hearing. Instead of coming in for refueling as nuclear-powered carriers do every 25 years, the core for Columbia class is to last the ship’s 40-plus-year service life. This longer core life is central to the Navy’s planning for 12 ballistic missile submarines instead of the 14 in the existing Ohio class.

Even with the Navy’s long history in nuclear propulsion, he told the panel that the longer life core “requires new materials,” which can present additional challenges. “We expect to start building the new core next year.” Caldwell added the longer life core would first be installed in future Virginia-class submarines.

Tuesday, Jabaley said the combined work on the quad-pack missile tubes and payload with the United Kingdom “is going very well.” The first five tubes have been delivered to the United States — four to Quonset Point, R.I., and one to Cape Canaveral, Florida.

He added the congressionally-approved continuous production authorities have been helpful aids in keeping the schedule intact. The Navy is looking to expand authorities into other areas, possibly the electric drive motor.

“It allows a more smooth ramp up” in building as repair work for other submarines decline, he said. That also helps Electric Boat maintain a steady skilled workforce over a long period of time. The authorities also “de-risk” the dangers of the early work problems surfacing in new class building, delaying the program and raising costs.

At the Senate panel last week, Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, recently confirmed as undersecretary for nuclear security at the Department of Energy, said the across-the-board nuclear weapons modernization programs has “everything is on track and on budget.” But she warned the panel that even with her program’s $15.1 billion budget request for Fiscal Year 2019, Congress “needs to sustain predictable funding” to deliver systems such as the replacement vessels for aging ballistic missile submarines.

In her opening statement, Gordon-Hagerty noted that $1.8 billion has been put against naval reactors in that request. “That’s a 20 percent increase” over last year’s and in line with Navy shipbuilding plans.

David Trimble, from the congressionally-established the General Accountability Office, agreed the longstanding challenge will be sustainability for all the nuclear programs — from ships to weapons. He also raised the affordability issue of bringing all the modernization programs into the services on schedule. He added a further problem may lay in having all this work done at the same time as the Department of Energy is overhauling existing laboratories, reprocessing plants and other facilities such as the Naval Reactors Facility in Idaho.

Gordon-Hagery said the facilities are on the average 40 years old.

For example, recapitalization of the naval facilities at the Idaho Nuclear Laboratory is closely linked to the Columbia-class construction program.

Keeping all that spending in balance makes the task more daunting. “A change in one area [one weapons program] can affect others [infrastructure and other weapons program]” dramatically, he said.

Trimble categorized the weapons programs as being on the “high-risk list” because of their demands on the overall budget, the need to keep each synchronized with the other, all requiring infrastructure modernization and many needing a growing, competent workforce with the necessary security clearances even for non-nuclear work.

Gordon-Hagerty projected the nuclear weapons modernization program alone would have “a sustained, profound and significant” impact on the Pentagon’s budget. She told the panel the cost would consume about 6.5 percent of the defense budget, up from slightly more than 3 percent in recent years.

“We are leaning as far forward as we can” on all these efforts and making sure “that we have priorities correct.”

She told the panel she expected to report back by year’s end on infrastructure needs with cost estimates.

  • Bubblehead

    Did I read that right, or is that a typo. Construction of Columbia to begin in 2021 with delivery 2031? Ten years? A freaking nuclear powered Ford carrier takes 5 and that time can be decreased even further?

    • Nick

      Your joking, Ford construction began on 11 August 2005, steel cut for a 15-ton plate that forms part of a side shell unit of the carrier, delivered to the Navy on 31 May 2017 and formally commissioned by Trump on 22 July 2017 in unfinished state as some mission equipment yet to fitted, twelve years and counting.

    • NavySubNuke

      That 10 years includes the extensive new construction testing/first in class testing (including launching at least 1 D5 missile), post-construction shipyard availability, and all the training and certifications for the crew — she’ll be delivered and ready to go on patrol in 2031 (if a miracle happens and all goes according to plan).

      • Ctrot

        I know today’s subs are more sophisticated etc. but I still reference back to SSBN-598, USS George Washington. She was laid down as a Scorpion class SSN and during construction cut in half and turned into the first SSBN and still managed to be launched one day shy of 2 years from the day her keel was laid.

        We were told, some decades ago now, that computers / CAD / CNC etc. etc. would make such construction tasks quicker and cheaper. We’ve not seen it. Of course I suppose if we were were still making engineering drawings for Columbia with T-squares she might take 30 years to build.

        • NavySubNuke

          Certainly the complexity and sophistication of the boats are a huge part of why they take so long to design and build.
          It would be an interesting experiment to try to design a sub of the same complexity and sophistication as the Scorpion class today and see how long it took to complete but I’m not sure it would really tell us that much. How much of Scorpions design was figured out along the way and how much was actually done in advance is an interesting questions for sure!
          We also shouldn’t discount how much we spent on the A-1/A-2/A-3 and the Washington’s, Lafayette’s, and Franklin’s that carried them. We used to spend a much larger % of our GDP on the Navy in general and on our nuclear weapons especially. If we were to devote that large of a % of our GDP to Trident/COLUMBIA we could certainly build them faster and build more of them.
          Edit: I’d also add that George Washington was not a SUBSAFE submarine too. The SUBSAFE program no doubt saves lives and ships – but it does at cost and time. I wouldn’t want to give it up but it is important to remember that the kind of safety and reliability we have achieved as a result (no subsafe submarine has ever been lost after all) is not free.

          • Ctrot

            Another point I’d like to inject here is that we have built SSBN’s before. We have an active “assembly line” building attack boats. Columbia doesn’t have to be designed from the ground up, from a clean sheet of paper. It’s not like going to the Moon in the 60’s when we had to figure it all out pretty much from scratch and then build all the equipment to accomplish the goal, we know how to build submarines! I suspect a large part of the long gestation period is due to the old adage “Perfect is the enemy of good” being demonstrated. Now I am one who wants our submariners to have the very best, but reaching so deep into the technology pool that it causes years of delay also puts those submariners at risk too. I would prefer to see Columbia class boats 1 and 2 built sooner with less “cutting edge” technology in them and have them available sooner and then incorporate more tech as it come available later in the production, retrofitting to the earlier boats as possible.

          • NavySubNuke

            Oh don’t worry – we aren’t building COLUMBIA’s with cutting edge tech —- that all was left on the budget cutting floor.
            We borrowed as much as we could from VIRGINIA but at the end of the day a 43 foot submarine that is 560 ft long needs different systems than a 33 foot boat that is ~375 ft long. Those systems can be fundamentally the same from a science standpoint but it is still an engineering challenge to design them and get them to fit inside the ship and make sure they are quiet enough.
            Oh and the whole missile compartment – though at least that is being developed with the Brits which helped save us some $$ since they paid for part of it. But we haven’t built a 45 ft by 87 inch missile tube capable of safely storing, sustaining, and launching a 130,000 missile in decades – not exactly a lot of commercial demand for such things so we have to recreate that whole industrial base.

          • Ctrot

            Yes I realize we’ve not built “boomers” in decades, but was all of that institutional knowledge just lost?

            I know it is cheaper to build such vessels in batches, with an assembly line approach, but maybe in the long run it would be best if we instead built them slowly, one ever 3-5 years over a longer period of time so we keep the assembly line hot and preserve the institutional knowledge while improving each vessel in succession. Of course we can’t immediately adopt such an approach now as we have a short deadline to replace the aging Ohio’s.

          • NavySubNuke

            Yes it was lost – it has been over 20 years since 743 was finished. Any of the senior and knowledgeable people who worked on her have moved on and retired by now – though there are probably some junior folks still at EB.
            The other issue is how much our submarine construction has changed since then – modular construction really is a fundamentally different way of building a submarine. And applying those principals to the missile compartment are going to save tens (if not hundreds) of millions of dollars vs. how we put OHIOs together.
            As to building them like carriers on a 3-5 year cost center – that seems to be the plan going forward. The 30 year ship building plan includes the idea of keeping the large diameter submarine production line open past COLUMBIA hull 12 and building SSGNs every 3 – 4 years. But that is out out out year money since we are talking mid to late 2040s so it is easy to say that now. We’ll see how congress feels about funding a $5B+ dollar (in 2018 dollars) SSGN every 3 – 4 years when we get there. Hopefully whoever we elect to congress during that time period (assuming we survive as a nation that long) is smarter than the self centered fools we fill congress with today.

  • Curtis Conway

    A higher level of detail and quality is REQUIRED in manufacture of these items. “The overheating problem was traced to faulty insulation.” Contractor Quality Control?! Maybe checking all contractors building critical systems (or all systems) should have a review/audit. Finding problems sooner rather than later will save time and lives. These contractors must understand that these boats have to function for DECADES with little or no maintenance in some systems. Murphy is alive and well, and let us not feed his habit.

    • NavySubNuke

      NR certainly deserves some of the blame – but there are limits to where in the process you can inspect and as far as I know they actually caught the problem at their first inspection point and actually during the assembly process not during the full up motor testing.
      Now that NR has seen this problem you can bet their loving attention is being applied even earlier in the process to make sure it doesn’t happen again. After all, there is nothing NR loves more than to shower their “love” and “attention” onto folks who show they need a little bit of extra TLC from them.

      • Curtis Conway

        I recall when we lost our first F-111s, and they inspected the metalurgy of the pin the wingsweep mechanism, and it wasn’e even close.

        I guess my question is . . . since it was discovered early on, the the faulty material was used anyway . . . did I understand that right ? . . and they are still on the team. Fines fixed the problem?

        Hopefully MAXIMUM discimination of this QUALITY Issue was disciminated to all contractors.

        • NavySubNuke

          Well NR never disseminates anything too widely which is why I am hesitant to say too much since there is a very limited pool of people who know the story.
          That said there aren’t very many people who can do the kinds of things we need done for COLUMBIA so we can’t exactly write off the contractor that screwed this up. Fine them – of course! Make them pay for the rework – certainly! But by the time they build out 12 e-drives for COLUMBIA and we switch the SSNs to e-drive as well they will more than make up the profits lost for those fines and rework.

          • Curtis Conway

            See your point.