Navy Appoints Admiral to Oversee Columbia Sub Effort

March 6, 2019 2:00 PM
Artist’s rendering of the Columbia-class SSBN submarine. US Navy image.

THE PENTAGON – The Navy is standing up a new Program Executive Office for Columbia, pulling the ballistic-missile submarines out of the PEO Submarines portfolio and giving it a one-star admiral who can provide constant focus and leadership as the Columbia program moves from design into construction. 

James Geurts, the Navy’s acquisition chief, told a small group of reporters today that the decision to create a new PEO now reflects a desire to proactively set the SSBN program up to succeed rather than react to challenges or crises down the road.

“I think a leadership responsibility is always to look to the future. And as we look at how important submarines are to the National Defense Strategy, how many important submarine programs we have spinning up, my concern was – with Columbia being our number-one acquisition program, and all the other submarine activity – did we have enough leadership bandwidth available to oversee and run all those programs simultaneously?” Geurts said.

Rear Adm. Scott Pappano, who assumed command of the Naval Undersea Warfare Center in December, will head the new PEO Columbia.

Noting that the Columbia-class (SSBN-826) program shares common components and suppliers with the Virginia-class attack submarines (SSN-774), and that the in-service maintenance community must also stay in the loop with the acquisition officers, Geurts laid out a vision for a Team Submarines approach.

“Our submarine enterprise is very integrated and interconnected, and so what we did not want to do is isolate Columbia because there’s a lot of connections, common parts, common activities,” he said.
“So the way I would characterize it is, I have a Team Submarines view of the world. … We have PEO Columbia focused on finishing up the design, getting into construction and managing that very complex program with its U.K. counterparts. We have our in-service submarine team, NAVSEA 07; their focus is on submarine maintenance and ensuring they can get submarines maintained and working through all the issues and challenges and opportunities associated with that. And then PEO Submarines under [Rear Adm. David] Goggins, they will have Virginia, a lot of the common elements between all the various programs, and technologies associated with it. Those three together form Team Submarines, and I’ve chosen those leaders very specifically for their ability to work across and work as a team to deliver the capability. They each have their own focus, but they have to work as a team because that is a very integrated and interconnected enterprise.”

The admirals heading up these organizations do have experience in each others’ lanes: PEO Subs’ Goggins is a former Columbia-class program manager, and new PEO Columbia’s Pappano used to lead the in-service SSBN maintenance and modernization office and currently serves as NAVSEA 07 until the new PEO Columbia is formally stood up later this month.

Part of the interconnectedness of the PEOs within Team Submarines is the National Seabased Deterrence Fund meant to pay for the Columbia program and provide spending authorities to save money – chiefly, an authority to award single contracts to cover common parts on Columbia SSBNs, Virginia SSNs and Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carriers.

Geurts said that “how we fund it should not be affected at all, and how the teams operate should not be affected at all.” He added that the PEOs involved in nuclear shipbuilding have worked across boundaries better than anyone else in the Navy and that he was confident that having three PEOs instead of two wouldn’t affect that.

Within the Columbia program, current program manager Capt. Jon Rucker will remain the Columbia-class PM but will report to PEO Columbia instead of PEO Subs. Rucker will focus strictly on the day-to-day program management of design, buying long-lead materials, moving into construction, and preparing the industrial base for producing one SSBN a year later in the 2020s. Pappano, as the PEO that falls above the program manager, will oversee collaboration with the Royal Navy and its Dreadnought submarine program, with the Strategic Systems Programs that produces the ballistic missile, Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program (Nuclear Reactors) that produces the subs’ nuclear propulsion system and more. Pappano will also ensure that test events continue on schedule and that new facilities needed to support the testing are progressing as needed.

Geurts reiterated that the decision to stand up a new PEO had to do with getting out ahead of future challenges and quoted former General Electric CEO Jack Welch, who said to “change before you have to.”

“It’s really me looking a couple years into the future – when we’ve got the first Columbia in production, we’re doing two-a-year Virginia, we’ve got SSN(X) starting up, we’ve got a lot of technology efforts going up – and ensuring that we had a senior leader focused every day on delivering our number-one acquisition program, a senior leader focused every day on all the other things going on with submarines, and a senior leader focused every day on maintaining our submarines.”

Megan Eckstein

Megan Eckstein

Megan Eckstein is the former deputy editor for USNI News.

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