This post has been updated to include additional comments on the contract award.
The Navy today awarded a $9.47 billion contract modification to General Dynamics Electric Boat to officially start construction on the first ballistic-missile submarine in the Columbia class of SSBNs.
Today’s award covers the construction of the first ship, the future Columbia (SSBN-826), as well as continued advanced construction activities on the second ship, the future Wisconsin (SSBN-827) — and, importantly, the start of construction for Wisconsin in Fiscal Year 2024, if Congress appropriates the money in accordance with the Navy’s current schedule.
“This modification to the integrated product and process development (IPPD) contract supports the fiscal 2021 construction start of the lead ship (SSBN 826) and advance procurement, advance construction, coordinated material buys and full construction of the follow hull (SSBN 827) in fiscal 2024,” reads the contract announcement.
“Today’s contract award marks a significant milestone towards delivering at least 12 Columbia class submarines, the first of which will deliver in FY 27 and be on its first patrol early in FY 31,” Rear Adm. Scott Pappano, the program executive officer for Columbia, told reporters today.
“It’s taken a hell of a lot of work to get to this point today. We’ve done a lot of work with large-scale land-based prototyping to shake out the design, we’ve done significant construction prototyping to shake out our manufacturing processes such as building our prototype first article quad pack to shake out the entire assembly of the common missile compartment in a modular fashion. We’ve done quite a bit of early advance procurement and construction to shake out the defense industrial base, which helped us identify missile tube welding issues several years ago that we learned from and addressed,” he continued.
“But now the real work does begin in earnest, and we will continue to work closely with Electric Boat and Newport News Shipbuilding, our shipbuilding partners, to efficiently execute the construction schedule to meet our aggressive but achievable delivery schedule for the Columbia.”
The Navy has long said the Columbia-class program is its top acquisition priority, with a demanding schedule in the coming decade to get Columbia out for its first nuclear deterrence patrol in early FY 2031. The Navy has focused its money on supporting the SSBN program and nuclear shipbuilding overall as a result, even at the expense of other spending needs. Congress too did its part to keep this top-priority program on track – though the government is operating under a short-term continuing resolution that does not allow new acquisition programs to be started, lawmakers included in the CR bill an anomaly that gives the Navy permission to award this contract now to avoid delaying this program.
“It’s vital for us to keep on track here. I can report that we are staying on track with the program today, this contract award keeps us on track. But there are plenty of challenges in front of us, and while this is an important milestone in the program and one we needed to hit and did hit, lots of hard work to go. The team has been working hard with all the challenges COVID has thrown at us – they’ve remained on track and kept the program rolling. That’s a testament to the shipyard workers, a testament to the suppliers, a testament to the government team to stay at it,” Navy acquisition chief James Geurts said during a media call today.
Though Geurts says they remain on track, the Navy and industry team aren’t quite where they hoped to be at the official start of SSBN construction. Leaders have said for years that the success of the Columbia program would depend heavily on the success of the Virginia-class attack submarine program – virtually all decisions in the past decade regarding the rate of Virginia construction, the timing of Virginia-class contract awards, the construction of new facilities at the shipyards and more have been made with the Columbia program in mind, ensuring that any Virginia-related decision wouldn’t hurt the ability to get Columbia started and completed on time, on budget and to quality standards. The Virginia program was also used to train up workers who could eventually go on to work on the SSBN line, and new design processes and other technologies were tested out in the Virginia class and the Ford-class nuclear-powered aircraft carrier as risk-reduction efforts for the Columbia class.
Still, today Virginia-class production is running behind schedule. Some of the challenges with Virginia Block IV deliveries pre-date the COVID-19 pandemic, which has further exacerbated schedule delays.
Asked what the recent Virginia delays mean for the success of Columbia, Geurts told USNI News during the media call that the SSN delays “are concerning, and we’ve been working hard to mitigate those and account for those as we go forward on the program. In the case of what is the impact of that to Columbia, the real issue from my perspective is ensuring that we get those issues wrung out and get on stride by the time we hit Block V, because Block IV will generally make it through the shipyard before Columbia is in its first kind of construction phase, so we have some ability to mitigate the risk there on Block IV as we get that effort fully on track. We do need to be hitting our strike on Block V because that will be the one that’s going to interweave with the final large construction, assembly, test, checkout of the first Columbia. So it’s certainly something we are focused on.”
Capt. Jon Rucker, the program manager for the Columbia class, said during the call that awarding a contract that already includes advance work for the second ship and even includes the timing and the cost of the second ship, if and when the option is executed, is a big deal for industry – which includes about 5,000 suppliers supporting the two shipyards that co-construct the submarines.
“The advantage of that option we did for the two ships is that it allows us to have it fully priced for both. We have the scheduled locked in. The shipbuilders can use that in a manner efficiently to work with the supplier base, because it’s a known demand,” he said.
Electric Boat President Kevin Graney told USNI News during the media call that the two-sub contract will enable “economic order quantities and the benefits of sending certain signals to the industrial base so that they’re going to invest in the facility, get the workforce in house and get all of that lined up to be able to support the required in-yard need date for all that material. So getting certainty in that is something we have long preached to the Navy and to the Congress, and we’re very pleased to see we’ve got that ability and that certainty going forward.”
Rucker said during the call that the average unit cost per SSBN is required to stay below $8 billion in calendar year 2017 dollars, according to Pentagon cost requirements. The lead ship is estimated to cost $7.44 billion in CY 2017 dollars, he said, well below the requirement – and steps are being taken to ensure cost comes out in each successive ship. Rucker later said that the cost in today’s dollars equals $9.2 billion for the lead ship.
Guerts said that, much like each block of the Virginia SSNs includes new design features that not only add capability but also take out construction or sustainment costs, so too is the Navy looking for improvements to add to each SSBN during the 12-boat build. He said the Navy is starting with a solid design and a high design completion, but tweaks can be added along the way to make them easier to build or more maintainable for the ship crew or repair depots down the road.
Rucker added that workers at the refit facility in Kings Bay, Ga., were brought in during the design phase to ensure that total lifetime costs were considered while designing the boat.
As for construction efficiencies, Rucker said Electric Boat and the Navy contractually agreed to an 84-month build sequence that starts in October and must be achieved to get the boat completed, tested and ready to deploy on time – but he added they’re actually targeting a 78-month plan that would create a bit of a cushion at the back end. That timeline should go down for subsequent ships, but due to the legacy Ohio-class SSBNs beginning to retire in the 2030s, the timing of the first boat is pivotal.
Rep. Joe Courtney, the chairman of the House Armed Services seapower and projection forces subcommittee and the congressman representing the Electric Boat shipyard, said in a statement that “this isn’t just a milestone for the shipbuilders at EB—the Columbia-class program will also be a major opportunity for industry partners up and down the supply chain for years to come, and a foundational piece for our region’s economic future. Generations of shipbuilders and manufacturers will get their start working on this multi-decade program, and it’s an exciting time to get more people into the pipeline for the jobs and opportunities that will come with the start of this effort.”
“This award was a long time coming, but it didn’t come without some challenges late in the game. Just a few weeks ago, we worked to ensure that the continuing resolution which prevented a government shutdown included the funding the Navy needed to issue the contract on time. Despite the strong bipartisan support for Columbia, this wasn’t a given—I and other members of the Connecticut and Rhode Island delegations had to make the case to the House leadership to include this provision. Our case prevailed, and the House bill, which was later passed by the Senate September 30, 2020, ensured that the Navy had everything it needed to make today’s announcement possible,” he continued.
“As Chairman of the House Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee with oversight of the Columbia program, I’ll continue to do all I can to ensure that our shipbuilders and our Navy have the tools and support they need to make this program a success. I know that the hard-working men and women of Electric Boat are up to the job.”