First Columbia Nuclear Missile Sub At Risk of 1-Year Delay Due to Supplier Problems

March 11, 2024 8:49 PM
Stern section of the future District of Columbia headed to General Dynamic Electric Boat in 2024. GD Photo

THE PENTAGON – The lead ship in the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine program is facing a potential one-year delay due to supplier issues, putting the Navy’s number one acquisition program at risk and creating a potential gap in the U.S. nuclear strategic deterrent, five people familiar with the delay told USNI News.

The future USS District of Columbia (SSBN-826) could deliver in Fiscal Year 2028 instead of its planned FY 2027 delivery, the sources confirmed to USNI News.

Capitol Forum first reported news of the delay on Monday.

The largest hurdle for District of Columbia is the bow module of the submarine that is under construction at HII’s Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia, two sources familiar with the delay told USNI News. The overall program is facing additional delays from the steam turbines that Northrop Grumman is under contract to build for the Navy.

Under the teaming arrangement for the Columbia program, lead contractor General Dynamics Electric Boat assembles the central barrel of the submarine’s hull at its yard in Groton, Conn., and its manufacturing facility in Quonset Point, R.I. Those modules built in New England are married to bow and stern sections that are constructed at Newport News and sent by barge up to the Columbia assembly hall in Connecticut. HII has been late in delivering the sections, delaying the timeline for construction.

Newport News delivered the stern of the lead boat in January, USNI News previously reported.

Likewise, the turbines that translate the steam generated by the submarine’s nuclear reactor to mechanical and electrical energy have also hit manufacturing delays, causing blockages in production.

A spokesman for HII’s Newport News referred USNI News to General Dynamics Electric Boat when asked about the potential schedule slippage. A spokesman for General Dynamics referred USNI News to the Navy.

Asked about the initial report during the Navy’s Fiscal Year 2025 budget briefing on Monday, Under Secretary Erik Raven pointed to Secretary Carlos Del Toro’s 45-day shipbuilding review.

“We’re seeing stress across the industrial base and again I think putting this in the context of the Secretary’s 45-day review will add additional depth and context to the challenges that we’re seeing across the shipbuilding portfolio and we expect to have that done fairly soon,” Raven told USNI News.

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


The Navy’s Fiscal Year 2025 budget books, released Monday with the annual budget request, list District of Columbia as delivering in October 2027, the same schedule listed in last year’s documents.

When asked about the potential delay, a Navy spokeswoman referred USNI News to Raven’s comments from the budget briefing and said more information on the program will be available when the service releases the results of the 45-day review that began in January. The Navy is expected to publish the review later this month, USNI News understands.

The service began to express concern over potential program delays last year. In a March 29 hearing before the House Appropriations Committee’s defense subcommittee, Del Toro warned the panel that the program was facing major headwinds.

During her confirmation hearing in September, now Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Lisa Franchetti said the $132 billion program was still meeting its timelines, but the margin was eroding.

“Columbia started out on an accelerated schedule. We are no longer on the accelerated schedule, but we are meeting the contracted delivery schedule for Columbia,” Franchetti told lawmakers at the time.

“We are continuing to work closely with industry against all those challenges that I described earlier and continuing to provide the right level of oversight so we understand where we are. It is [an] all hands on deck effort to ensure that we stay on time,” she added.

USS Alaska (SSBN-732) arrived at the Port of Gibraltar on June 28, 2021. US Navy Photo

The Columbia program, which recapitalizes the sea-based leg of the U.S. military’s nuclear triad, has a razor-thin schedule margin because each boat needs to replace the submarines in the Ohio class one-for-one. To provide some cushion, the Navy is planning to perform short extensions for up to five Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarines that would stretch each boat’s service life by three years. Starting with USS Alaska (SSBN-732), each boat would undergo an 18-month maintenance availability for the extension. But the service has several years and budget cycles before it needs to make a final decision on the extensions.

Under U.S. Strategic Command requirements, the Navy’s submarine force must be able to surge 10 ballistic missile submarines should a nuclear contingency arise. There are currently 14 SSBNs in the Navy’s inventory. Without a service life extension for the Ohio-class boats, the inventory would dip to 13 in FY 2027, then 12 in FY 2029, according to the FY 2024 long-range shipbuilding blueprint. Without the extension, the number would then decrease to 11 in FY 2030 through FY 2032.

Mallory Shelbourne and Sam LaGrone

Mallory Shelbourne and Sam LaGrone are USNI News staff writers.

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