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Navy: USS Columbia Will Have Most Complete Design Ever at Official Construction Start

Artist’s rendering of the Columbia-class SSBN submarine. US Navy Image

This post has been updated to correctly state that the first patrol will begin in October 2030 and that design disclosures are on track to be 83 percent complete at the start of construction.

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – The Navy will have the most complete design ever and will be well into construction when the “official start” of construction on the lead Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine occurs on Oct. 1, 2020, the service’s program manager said.

Capt. Jon Rucker said this week that his Columbia class of SSBNs is on a tight schedule – not just to deliver the lead ship in time for an October 2030 first patrol, but to deliver each subsequent ship on time for their own patrols too, as the Ohio-class boomers retire in rapid succession. But his program is managing the risks associated with the tight timeline as best as it can, including bumping up quite a bit of work before the construction phase officially begins.

While October 2020 is the official start of construction, Newport News Shipbuilding will kick off its advance construction efforts on June 7, he said, and prime contractor General Dynamics’ Electric Boat is already doing prototyping and advance construction work. Whereas lead ship USS Virginia (SSN-774) was only 1 percent complete when its construction officially began, USS Columbia (SSBN-826) will be 11 percent complete, Rucker said while speaking at the Navy League’s annual Sea Air Space conference.

“We are trying to get ahead of that curve to de-risk this program so we can achieve that schedule,” he said, noting that the Columbia-class boomers would be the largest submarines ever built in the United States.

The approximately 420 ship specifications and requirements are completed, he said, and the 4,100 design arrangements are about 97.5 percent complete. The Navy is already 44 percent through finalizing the 4.650 design disclosures and is on track to be 83 percent done with the disclosures at the start of construction. In comparison, USS Ohio (SSGN-726) was just 2 percent through disclosures when its construction began; USS Seawolf (SSN-575) was 4 percent complete, USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) was 27 percent complete and Virginia was 43 percent complete.

Rucker called this drive to be largely done with the design disclosures – which outline not just the design but the measurements, details about the material, how to build the component and more – an effort to save time and money and to reduce risk, since it will avoid changes later on that will cost time and money.

Rucker also announced that, in support of the propeller and propulsor, which take four to five years to build, “the first component of the lead ship Columbia was poured on May 1. So 175,000 pounds – I won’t tell you what it is, I’m not allowed to – 175,000 pounds, first component for Columbia, on schedule.”

The captain made clear there is still risk in this program, which Navy leadership regularly acknowledges is the service’s top priority and will continue to get all the funding it needs, but still remains risky due to the tight schedule it’s on. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson told lawmakers recently that “we are on schedule, but just on schedule. We are on cost, but just on cost.”

Rucker said in his speech that “there are risks – however, they are risks that we understand and we’re proactively managing.”

Perhaps somewhat counterintuitively, the Navy is reducing some schedule risk by adding concurrency to the program – crunching the amount of time between the design process and the construction process in certain areas of the submarine where the design is simpler and needs less time for review before construction begins.

Rucker told USNI News during his presentation that the Navy likes to have 52 weeks between design and construction. However, “there are cases where we made a conscious decision to reduce that down to about 30 to 40 weeks. So we reduced it, but in those areas we are micromanaging it every day as we go through, and so we feel that risk is perfectly manageable. Most of the stuff isn’t the complex stuff – it would be like the structural stuff, it’s the basic building a deck, building a foundation, building a tank.”

Pulling some of this construction ahead despite what on paper looks like more concurrency risk is what will allow the program to reach 11-percent completion before construction officially starts.

“That concurrency is not what you would think that, a person’s designing it and they’re building it in parallel,” Rucker made clear.

In other areas, though, the concurrency issue may prove to be more challenging for the Navy to manage. A Government Accountability Office report recently noted that “A manufacturing defect that affected the system’s first production-representative propulsion motor required extensive repair that consumed nine months of schedule margin at the land-based test facility. The Navy now plans to test the motor at the same time it had originally scheduled to make any final design changes before starting production. This could constrain opportunities to implement timely, corrective actions if problems are discovered during testing.”

Richardson said in his recent testimony to lawmakers that he and Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer “have made it very clear that, looking forward and anticipating those things that will inevitably arise during testing and everything in such a complex program, we need to work diligently to build more margin into the program.”