COVID Pandemic a Barrier to Navy’s Oversight of Columbia Submarine Industrial Base; PEO Working on Virtual Oversight

June 2, 2020 5:34 PM
Attack boat Vermont (SSN-792) float-off on March 29, 2019. General Dynamics Electric Boats Photo

The Columbia ballistic-missile submarine program has seen some COVID-19-related challenges – including difficulties conducting oversight audits to ensure suppliers can keep to the tight schedule that has no room for further delays – but the program executive officer is confident that the prime shipbuilder is managing the situation and keeping the program on track.

The Navy had been deploying multi-functional inspection teams to visit SSBN suppliers and conduct hands-on inspections to make sure workers were properly trained to deliver quality products on time; due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, those in-person visits have had to stop, Program Executive Officer for Columbia Rear Adm. Scott Pappano said June 1. The service is hoping to restart those inspections, first virtually and eventually in person again.

Pappano, speaking Monday at a virtual meeting hosted by the Advanced Nuclear Weapons Alliance Deterrence Center, said the Columbia program is actively identifying and mitigating risks, as there is no wiggle room left in the schedule to complete the first-in-class Columbia (SSBN-826) by 2027. Flawed welds on missile tubes in 2018 threatened that timeline, and Pappano said the Navy learned from that experience that it couldn’t take for granted that suppliers throughout the industrial base had the right workforce and facilities to deliver on time and to Navy quality standards.

“Our most significant risk at the top of the list is our supplier industrial base. We kind of shook that out a little bit with missile tubes; we had loss and atrophy in some skill sets,” he said, referring to welds that weren’t caught during quality assurance checks at the manufacturer.
“We took what we learned from our missile tube repair issues that we had to do to drive a more extensive risk-based assessment of vendors – the intrusive supplier audits – to make sure we understood what the industrial base could and couldn’t do on throughput and quality. We have instituted that across with carriers, with submarines, across the base; have identified where those risks are” and are seeking targeted mitigation plans that could include working across all submarine and aircraft carrier programs to help level-load the suppliers’ upcoming workload, or helping the company boost workforce training or build the right facilities to be successful.

Those intrusive supplier audits began in 2018. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, though, “because of the environment we’re in and our limited ability to travel, if we can use remote resources like [Defense Contract Management Agency] that are on site to help us with that, we’ve used that. Some of that has been some desktop audit kinds of things where we can review virtually the supply base and work with them. We’re working a plan to ramp that back up again, starting virtually … and remote resources, and then go ramp that back up again as we move forward here.”

The audit teams include about 10 to 12 people and represent communities including engineering, quality assurance, program management, purchasing and more, and they include groups like DCMA, the Supervisor of Shipbuilding and prime contractor General Dynamics Electric Boat, who may already have representatives on site with the vendor. The teams watch employee training and performance, inspect material samples and other hands-on work that wasn’t previously done, in the hopes of avoiding another situation like the missile tube welds.

Incidentally, Pappano said the missile tube vendors were actually among the hardest hit by COVID-19 so far. Just three companies build the tubes, and one – Babcock Marine in the United Kingdom – saw a 30-percent drop-off in productivity for a time due to the virus.

“Early on in the COVID thing, they were hard hit with having welders and [quality assurance] not being able to come to work, and so we did see a hiccup in the missile tube production there,” Pappano said.

“Our initial assessment is, without any further mitigation, we saw a delay of, probably an impact of about a couple of months in there for the missile tubes, in the worst case. So right now, that’s unmitigated; that’s without doing any other recovery actions,” Pappano said when asked to quantify the delay of the pandemic.
“So that couple-month impact right now, we’ve circled back up with the private shipbuilder, Electric Boat, and with the missile tube vendors; we’re analyzing a plan right now, prioritizing what tubes are going where, and then coming up with mid-term and long-term recovery to go deal with that: is it additional resources? Is it additional support vendors? A couple different options.”

That couple-months delay may ultimately just be a few weeks’ delay, once the recovery measures are carried out.

The admiral noted that Babcock is back up to about 90 percent of the workforce coming in each day, which will help provide more options for trying to get the missile tubes back on schedule.

At the prime shipbuilder level, Pappano praised Electric Boat for keeping the program on track despite all the challenges – both related to the pandemic and those just stemming from starting a new construction program and building a lead ship.

Because Columbia is considered a top priority for the Navy and the Defense Department, “it has been afforded the priority to get the work done, both at the prime shipbuilders and with the supply vendors, the supporting vendors that feed the material to the shipbuilders. They’ve done a great job of mitigating any impact to Columbia. That being said … there are going to be probably other impacts to other programs, for instance the Virginia-class shipbuilding program. You may not be able to do it all with the workforce you have until we come out of the COVID-19. That’s really where we’re going to have to mitigate the impacts. We will drive the resources to Columbia to get it done as the top priority.”

Pappano later told USNI News there were no specific examples yet of resources being pulled from Virginia to keep Columbia on track during the pandemic, but that if the industrial base continues to see workers staying home because they are sick or to take care of children, that would be a potential outcome.

Overall, the program had a critical design review in April and a production readiness review with builders Electric Boat and Newport News Shipbuilding in May, ahead of an August checkpoint review with the Office of the Secretary of Defense to approve the start of full-rate production in October.

Advance construction activities are already taking place on all six super modules of the Columbia design, and as much as 10 percent of all construction may be complete by the time full-rate construction is actually permitted to begin on Oct. 1 – the start of Fiscal Year 2021. Decks, bulkheads, tanks, stabilizers and more are already being built for the first-in-class boat.

On the government-furnished equipment side, Pappano added, land-based testing of full-scale prototypes of the submarine’s weapons and propulsion system are already taking place to drive down risk and help ensure the program meets its construction and deployment timelines.

Megan Eckstein

Megan Eckstein

Megan Eckstein is the former deputy editor for USNI News.

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