Columbia-class Program Upping Oversight of Vendors, Components to Stave Off Further Delays

November 8, 2018 6:06 PM
Gold crew of the Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarine USS Louisiana (SSBN-743) arrives home to Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor, Wash. US Navy Photo

ARLINGTON, Va. – The Navy has no wiggle room when it comes to a planned October 2020 start of construction on the first new ballistic missile submarine, so the Columbia-class program office has cranked up its interaction with and oversight of vendors big and small within the program.

To stay on top of the major milestones – start of construction, delivery of the first boat, maiden deployment, all of which have no margin left for error or delays – the program office is tracking 101 components and 329 critical vendors and keeping a watchful eye on those, so any issues are caught early and at a lower level before they put at risk the submarine program as a whole, Columbia-class Program Manager Capt. Jon Rucker said this week at the Naval Submarine League annual conference.

“We are in full swing” on the program, already manufacturing some early parts and buying materials ahead of the October 2020 official start of construction. But the first component being built – the missile tubes – has already faced a welding quality issue that sets the missile tubes back about a year. Rucker said that particular component had about 23 months of margin built into its schedule – fabrication of the tubes started early and is being paced to be cost-effective, rather than delivering right on time to be added into the hulls – but deficient welding in the tubes ate up about 10 months of that margin, Rucker said.

The missile tube quality issue sparked the Navy to crack down on vendor oversight. Rucker told reporters after his panel presentation on Wednesday that previously the Navy relied on paperwork reviews of the vendors’ training records, welding records and other documents to classify how much risk was involved. This less-rigorous oversight approach began in the 1990s as the Navy ramped down its submarine procurement, and Rucker said that in that lower-paced steady state it served the Navy well. But in this case, the vendor BWX Technologies’ history of quality welding didn’t apply to the new Columbia-class SSBNs missile tubes, which require much thicker and longer welds than anything the company has been asked to do before. So trusting that their history of good work meant they weren’t a risk to the Columbia program, in hindsight, was a mistake, Rucker said.

“We have to go back to that more proactive approach,” he said, adding the program office would take a “trust, but verify” approach when it comes to shipbuilders General Dynamics Electric Boat and Newport News Shipbuilding and their entire supply chain.

Columbia-class illustration

Several changes have occurred since the missile tube welding deficiencies were discovered, Rucker told reporters.

On the 101 components, each have a timeline from design to construction to delivery, and a certain window in that timeline keeps them in the “green” category of being on track. A delay of a certain size would trigger them to move into the “yellow” category, and at that point the component – no matter how small – is brought to Rucker himself as the program manager.

“If it hits that yellow, it’s immediately brought to my attention. No one is allowed to change that schedule margin that goes into that yellow without my permission. And so we do component-level reviews – so if you ask me, there’s 101 components on that; I can tell you today we have about eight of them in that yellow.”

Rucker couldn’t say which items were “yellow,” but he said he personally has visited vendors to look at their challenges and help identify ways to get back to green. He said this is the first time the Navy has taken such a proactive management approach to the component level of a program.

As for the vendors themselves, starting in the second week of September the Navy began stepped-up “intrusive inspections” for the nine total vendors involved in the missile tubes. Those nine will wrap up by the end of the year – three are completed, and two are ongoing this week – and then the Navy will work through a prioritized list of the 329 critical vendors.

Under these new intrusive inspections, the Navy sends a team of 10 to 12 people that represent all communities – engineering, supplier quality, program management, purchasing and more – and pull from the program office, the Defense Contract Management Agency, the Supervisor of Shipbuilding and the two prime contractors. This team will watch employee training and performance, inspect material samples and other hands-on work that wasn’t previously done.

“It’s a team sport as we go out and get the industrial base back to where they’re more proficient and doing it on a repeatable high-volume basis,” Rucker said.
“If you don’t assess that risk right up front correctly, then you don’t put the right processes in place. That’s what we missed with this particular missile tube, but we did not have that intrusive recheck as much as we are doing now. And frankly that will be something we continue in perpetuity because we can’t, obviously, we can’t afford to have another issue.”

Elsewhere in the program, the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program (Naval Reactors) is also taking steps to de-risk the Columbia program. Naval Reactors director Adm. Frank Caldwell said Wednesday at the Sub League event that the Columbia nuclear reactor would use components from the Virginia-class reactor when possible and would begin buying heavy components for the reactor plant two years ahead of the start of construction.

The program has designed a prototype refueling core with several Columbia-class elements, and that prototype will be loaded into one of the reactors at the Kenneth A. Kesselring Site in West Milton, N.Y. which serves as a training facility for naval nuclear operators and as a test site for new technologies.

“What that means is that we prove that we can manufacture this core,” Caldwell said.
“And that core that I talked about for the Kesselring prototype is nearing completion and will be loaded into the prototype in the year 2020.”

Megan Eckstein

Megan Eckstein

Megan Eckstein is the former deputy editor for USNI News.

Get USNI News updates delivered to your inbox