No Wiggle Room in Schedule For Columbia-Class Submarine

By Yasmin Tadjdeh
Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine USS Alabama (SSBN 731)

Photo: Navy

Work is underway to replace the sea-based leg of the United States’ nuclear triad, but officials have said there is no further room for schedule slippage as the decommissioning of legacy submarines looms.

The program, known as the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine, is an effort to replace aging Ohio-class subs. The boats — which make up the most survivable leg of the triad, alongside land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles and long-range bombers — are slated to begin decommissioning in the late 2020s. That means the new subs must be ready to start patrols in fiscal year 2031, said Vice Adm. Terry J. Benedict, director of the Navy’s strategic systems programs.

“Recapitalizing our ballistic missile submarines is a significant investment and something that happens every other generation, making it critically important that we do it right,” he said during a May hearing before the House Armed Services Committee’s subcommittee on strategic forces.

However, schedule slippages have threatened to create a capability gap.

“Today the current program has basically one Columbia-class entering service as one Ohio-replacement platform departs service,” he said. “We have already taken a two-year slip in the Columbia-class [schedule] which pushed basically line-on-line with the Ohio’s retirement.”

While the Navy strongly believes it can execute the program on time, any further schedule slippage would be a major issue, he noted.

Congress needs to be mindful of that as it crafts its budgets, said Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., during the hearing. “We just don’t have any room for not hitting the mark each year,” he said.
Already, the Navy has extended the Ohio-class’ service life from 30 to 42 years, Benedict added.

In the president’s fiscal year 2018 budget, the Navy requested $843 million for the second year of advanced procurement for the Columbia class, according to service documents. The Navy also budgeted more than $1 billion toward research-and-development efforts for the boat. That will “focus on the propulsion plant, common missile compartment development and platform development technologies like the propulsor, strategic weapons system and maneuvering/ship control,” the Navy said.

According to a Congressional Budget Office report, the lead submarine will cost an estimated $12.2 billion in 2016 dollars, and subsequent boats will cost an average of $5.9 billion. Including research-and-development costs, it is expected that the total acquisition price tag for the program will reach $90 billion.

The Columbia-class submarine — which is being built by Electric Boat — represents the Navy’s highest shipbuilding priority, Adm. John Richardson, chief of naval operations, said in his written testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee in June.

Sean Stackley, acting secretary of the Navy, said the program is currently executing detailed design efforts in preparation for ordering long-lead time material in fiscal year 2019 and the commencement of construction in fiscal year 2021.

“The program’s delivery schedule is tightly aligned to the retirement schedule of our current ballistic missile submarine inventory,” he testified. “Cost, schedule and technical performance on this program are being thoroughly managed to ensure we deliver on time, on budget and on target per our requirements.”

Bryan Clark, a naval analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, said one of the reasons for the boat’s delay is because of the new electric propulsion system.

“That’s a big change for U.S. nuclear submarines,” he said. “We’ve only built one that had all-electric propulsion, where you have an electric generator that then powers an electric motor that drives the ship, instead of using a steam turbine.”

During the Cold War, the USS Glenard P. Lipscomb used such a turbine, he said. Electric systems are quieter since reduction gears are not needed, as they are with steam turbines, Clark added.

“The most efficient speed for the steam turbine to rotate is like 10,000 rpm, but the most efficient rate for the propeller to move at is maybe 15 or 20 rpm,” he said. “You got to have reduction gears to take that really high speed turbine and gear it down to a speed that you can actually turn that prop at.”

The Navy has had trouble perfecting the prototype version of the system, which has in turn caused delays, he said.

The electric turbine is one of the only components that gives Clark pause.

“The rest of the submarine has a lot of commonality with the Virginia-class, so there’s not a lot of new technology being incorporated into it,” he said. “They are doing some improvements in terms of sound silencing and sonar systems, but it’s all technology that has been tested out and has been proven.

“I’m not too worried about the rest of the submarine,” he added.

Congress will likely want to help the Navy overcome its schedule issues, Clark said.

The funding that the Trump administration allocated for the Columbia-class in the proposed fiscal year 2018 budget is based on the schedule the Navy was originally trying to maintain, but with the delays pushing the boat up to the decommissioning of the first Ohio-class sub, Congress will need to allocate more funding, Clark said.

“Congress is working to get them more money to help accelerate it in the hopes that that will help give them a little bit of margin,” he said.

While the Navy embarks on the acquisition of the Columbia-class submarine, it is also extending the life of the Trident II D5 strategic weapon system.

“The Trident II D5 SWS has been deployed on our Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines for 27 years and is planned for a service life of more than 50 years,” Benedict said. “This is well beyond its original design life of 25 years and more than double the historical service life of any previous sea-based strategic deterrent system.”

The Navy is extending the life of the system to match the Ohio-class submarine’s service life, and it will also serve as the initial payload for the Columbia-class, he said.

“Maintaining one SWS during the transition to the Columbia-class is beneficial from a cost, performance and risk reduction standpoint,” he said.

The Navy plans to upgrade its subsystems, including the D5’s launcher, navigation, fire control, guidance, missile and reentry, Benedict said.

“Our flight hardware — missile and guidance — life-extension efforts are designed to meet the same form, fit and function of the original system to keep the deployed system as one homogeneous population, control costs and sustain the demonstrated performance of the system,” he said.

So far, the program is on track, Benedict said. It reached a major milestone in February when the first two D5 life-extended missiles were integrated onto the USS Maryland. “This was a significant programmatic achievement and represents the first step to convert the entire fleet to life-extended missiles over the coming years,” he said.

The upgrades will sustain the weapon system until the 2040s, he said.

The Trident II can carry two types of warheads, the W76 and the W88. Both are being upgraded, with the W76 life-extension program approximately 80 percent complete.
The W88 major alteration program is slated to support a first production unit in 2019, Benedict said.

One major component of the Columbia-class program is the development of its common missile compartment (CMC), which is being done in conjunction with the United Kingdom, he said. The United States and the United Kingdom, through the Polaris Sales Agreement of 1963, have maintained a shared commitment to nuclear deterrence. They also share the Trident II D5 strategic weapon system. The United Kingdom is currently recapitalizing its four Vanguard-class submarines with the Dreadnought class.

“We developed a CMC that will support production in both U.S. and U.K. build yards,” Benedict said. “The CMC will allow the life-extended Trident II D5 missile to be deployed on the Columbia and the U.K. Dreadnought-class” subs.

Because of this partnership, it is critical that the Columbia-class’ development proceed without schedule slippage, he said.

“Any delay has the potential to impact not only our ability to meet our operational requirements but also the U.K.’s ability to maintain a continuous at-sea deterrent posture,” he said.

Clark noted the collaboration between the United States and the United Kingdom could potentially cause delays in the program.

“There’s a little bit of risk there just because you’ve got two countries and two companies and multiple players involved in the development and construction of these modules, but the technical aspect of it is pretty straightforward,” he said. “It’s more about the management of it. … It may create the potential for some schedule delays just as things get worked through.”

As the overall program moves forward, the Navy will have to be careful regarding the cost of the boat. In a report by the Congressional Research Service titled, “Navy Columbia-Class Ballistic Missile Submarine Program: Background and Issues for Congress,” author Ronald O’Rourke noted that the costs of many other Navy programs have swelled beyond the service’s estimates.

“The accuracy of the Navy’s estimate is a key consideration in assessing the potential affordability of the Columbia-class program, including its potential impact on the Navy’s ability to procure other kinds of ships during the years of Columbia-class procurement,” he said. “Some of the Navy’s ship designs in recent years, such as the Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78)-class aircraft carrier, the San Antonio (LPD-17) class amphibious ship and the littoral combat ship, have proven to be substantially more expensive to build than the Navy originally estimated.”

A Congressional Budget Office report said the Navy has underestimated the cost of lead ships in new classes by a weighted average of 27 percent.

The Navy has assigned a confidence level of 43 percent to its estimated procurement cost of the lead ship, and a 46 percent confidence level for the estimated average procurement cost for ships two through 12, O’Rourke said.

“What this means is that the Navy has calculated that there is more than a 50 percent chance that the procurement costs of Columbia-class boats will turn out to be greater than what the Navy currently estimates,” he said.


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