Shipyard Pursuing Cost-Cutting Measures For Next-Generation Ballistic Missile Submarine

By Grace V. Jean
One of the Navy’s most expensive purchases — the next-generation ballistic missile submarine — is still years away, but a shipyard is working on the preliminary design with an eye towards shaving close to $1 billion off the expected $5.7 billion price tag.

The Navy currently operates 14 ballistic missile submarines capable of carrying up to 24 Trident II D-5 missiles each. Designed for a 30-year service life, the first submarine of the Ohio-class fleet will retire in 2027 after more than 40 years of service.

Beginning this decade, the Navy will initiate a program to replace the submarines. The service’s long-term shipbuilding plan reflects a total buy of 12 boats, with the first new boomer to be procured no later than 2019. The second boat will be bought in 2022 followed by the next seven submarines starting in 2024. The final three will be acquired in the early 2030s.

The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the total cost for the entire class is $99 billion. While detailed design work for the new ballistic missile submarine commences in 2015, the initial research and development effort is under way at General Dynamics Electric Boat, which designed and developed the 560-foot Ohio-class submarine in the 1970s.

Officials at Electric Boat say that they are aiming to reduce the Ohio-replacement class costs so that the price per hull is closer to $4.9 billion for the second through 12th boats.

To do that will require wringing out costs and lowering the price on government-furnished equipment, said Kevin Poitras, senior vice president for engineering, design and business development at the Groton, Conn.-based shipyard. About 60 percent of the overall cost lies within the yard’s control. The remaining 40 percent falls into combat systems and weapons that the government will procure separately.  

“Getting to $4.9 billion will be a combination of how well we get the manufacturing plan done, and the material that goes in the boat,” Poitras said. “The material that you buy — the pumps, valves, raw materials — probably makes up 75 percent of the cost.”  

Innovations in ship construction can help cut costs, he added. Electric Boat engineers who worked on the Ohio-class submarine pioneered a modular construction process where ships are built in large sections, or blocks, that are fully outfitted and then connected and welded together. The concept since then has been applied to a number of ships, including the Virginia-class attack submarine currently being built under a teaming arrangement between Electric Boat and Huntington Ingalls Industries, formerly Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding in Newport News, Va. Virginia-class submarines are being assembled in four 2,000-ton modules.

On the Ohio-class replacement program, Electric Boat engineers are looking to construct the submarine in even larger modules. Also under consideration is altering how some of the parts are built, said Poitras. One of the biggest changes involves fabrication of the missile compartment. When the original Ohio-class submarines were built, the entire hull was constructed first and then workers cut a hole in the steel to install the missile tubes.  

“Now, we’re going to pre-fabricate a number of missile tubes and put them into a smaller ‘quad-pack,’” explained Poitras. The quad-packs will be joined to form the missile compartment. Workers would then install the completed compartment before the hull is welded together in final assembly.

“We think that will save a year and a half in construction time. That’s significant,” Poitras said.
That effort, like some other new processes under consideration, is so radical a change that the yard will have to test prototypes in order to validate the concept before the program commits to it, he added.  

The yard is working with the Navy to develop the technical specifications for the ship.

“As you set requirements and you draw out the initial system schematics, by that time you’ve defined about 70 percent of the costs,” said Brian Wilson, the sea-based strategic deterrent program manager at Electric Boat.

During the next two years those costs will become fixed as the design phase of the submarine proceeds, Poitras added.

How much the Navy will have to pay to operate and maintain the boat throughout its 30-year service life also is a concern.

“The ideas have to be good ideas that save money in design, construction and lifecycle costs. … That’s an actual challenge,” Wilson said. “Often, you can go spend money up front to save money downstream in the lifecycle, but we’re trying to balance all three and drive all three [costs] down at once.”

Navy officials have stated that they are expecting a 10-percent reduction in lifecycle costs in the new Trident program. That creates an incentive to reuse parts and components from the Virginia-class submarine program, Wilson said.

Shipyard officials speculated that the Navy might opt to buy the Ohio-replacement submarines in two large “block buys” of five boats each, after the first-of-class ship is built. Navy officials recently announced that the service is looking at possibly overlapping two Virginia-class block buys with two Ohio-replacement block buys. “That’s a lot of volume that you could conceivably make use of in competition,” Poitras said.

But the yards will have to ensure that every shared component has the reliability that a strategic deterrence platform needs to conduct its missions. If parts fail, they will have to be quickly repaired or replaced at sea — a standard that is more stringent than the requirements for maintaining fast-attack submarines.

“We’re having to remind people of what that means and how important it is,” Wilson said.

The Navy’s program office has hosted visits and given shipyard officials opportunities to talk to sailors on Ohio-class boats and to the maintainers at submarine bases and repair facilities. “They see the problems and the solutions, so we can incorporate them into what we have here,” Wilson said.

Shipyard officials also are working with the Navy’s missile, naval reactor and propulsion communities. “Everyone has the same objective: a good quality product. But we have to meet these cost goals, which is going to be a challenge,” said Poitras. “It’s going to take balance and innovation. To do that, we’re at the shipyard changing our design processes.”

Officials said the yard might feed electronic design data directly into the manufacturing side of the operations to expedite and facilitate construction while lowering costs.

“There’s really not a lot of margin left to get this ship built and put out on its first patrol. We’d really like to keep on the pace we’re at because we want a high level of design completion to start the construction,” said Poitras.

When construction commenced on the Virginia-class submarines, the design was about 45 percent complete. The target for the Ohio replacement is at greater than 50 percent complete to attain the cost goal.

“We’re already investing in quite a few vendors to make sure that their design, the prototypes and their qualifications support the in-yard need date of the boat,” said Wilson. “That boat has to deliver when the first Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine comes offline. It is all intricately tied into a big schedule.”                      

Topics: Shipbuilding, Submarines

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