Growing Work Force Largest Challenge to Columbia-Class Sub Programs, Says Navy Official

August 25, 2022 1:55 PM
Artist’s rendering of the Columbia-class SSBN submarine. US Navy Image

Having the right work force is the biggest challenge affecting the Columbia-class ballistic submarine program’s ability to stay on schedule, the Navy’s senior officer in charge of strategic submarines said Wednesday.

Rear Adm. Scott Pappano, speaking at an Air Force Association Mitchell Institute event, said, “we need skilled trades feeding our industrial base.”

He added it was important that the two submarine shipbuilders General Dynamics Electric Boat and Huntington Ingalls Industries Newport News Shipbuilding train more welders, electricians, riggers and other yard workers. They also need to work with local schools in developing curriculums that show high school and community college students there are good-paying careers available in their shipyards.

“For many years, we left that [training] to the contractors. We don’t have that luxury any more,” he said.

From the Navy’s end, that means being able to say with conviction this is what the sea service is buying with these contracts over this amount of time, Pappano said.

“It is a challenge to get the work force” now and into the future as the yards ramp up to build two Virginia-class subs and meet their commitments for Columbia.
“This is a significant ramp-up.”

Modernizing the nuclear triad “is the most important we are doing” and that includes weapons like the latest Trident II D 5 missiles, shore infrastructure and laboratories, Pappano said. He noted that the ballistic missile submarine force carries about 70 percent of the nation’s nuclear triad and is the most survivable.

The Chinese have made great strides in building its own nuclear triad to include ballistic missile submarines as the Kremlin modernized its nuclear forces, Pappano said.

His job is to build up, as well as sustain, the nuclear submarine force, where the United States maintains a competitive edge over competitors like Beijing and Moscow, he said.

He echoed comments made at the keel-laying of the future USS District of Columbia in June that it will serve into the 2080s. It will not need to return to a shipyard for a refueling that could remove it from service for a prolonged period. The 12 in the class will be the largest submarines built. A decision about a 13th or 14th Columbia-class submarine has not been made, Pappano said.

The construction is divided between Connecticut and Virginia with final assembly at Electric Boat’s New England facilities. They are to replace 14 Ohio class subs that first entered the fleet in the 1980s.

Pappano said another challenge with Columbia is that neither yards nor the Navy have done missile testing on building sites for two decades, but there is still two years to iron out details and resolve issues.

At the same time, he also has to ensure bases like Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, Ga., are ready to do re-fitting work on the new class and also to train crews that will serve on the Columbias.

Pappano admitted “we’re kind of in uncharted waters” when it comes to surface life extension programs for selected Ohio-class submarines. Instead of the 30-year service life expected when built, some Ohio class will actually serve more than 40 to provide a strategic cushion in the transition to Columbia and it’s “heel-to-toe” construction and delivery schedule.”

He added the Navy and shipyards will be able to take lessons they learned from earlier conversions of Ohio-class submarines to guided missile vessels [SSGN].

Pappano said the Navy’s approach to large projects like ballistic missile submarines building and conversion is to move away from MIL SPECS [detailed specifications on building] to being more software driven “to keep pace with industry” and being “hardware agnostic.”

When asked about building Australia’s nuclear attack submarines at an American or United Kingdom yard, he said an 18-month study is only half completed.

Poppano said the additional work in for an Aussie sub would put pressure on the yards to keep their delivery schedules for Columbias to the U.S. Navy and new U.K. Dreadnought-class ballistic missile submarines to the Royal Navy.

John Grady

John Grady

John Grady, a former managing editor of Navy Times, retired as director of communications for the Association of the United States Army. His reporting on national defense and national security has appeared on Breaking Defense,,,, Government Executive and USNI News.

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