Double Duty: Shipyards Building Two Submarine Classes Simultaneously (UPDATED)
The design and construction of the next ballistic missile submarine entails addressing a host of unprecedented challenges for the Navy, according to service officials and experts.
The estimated $15.2 billion price tag for the first boat, a lack of skilled labor, supply chain concerns and a tight timetable are key hurdles. The Trident submarines it would replace are going to be pressed into service for years after their initial projected life expectancy.
Still, the work has begun for the Columbia-class submarine and must go on, said Navy officials. The service considers replenishment of the nation’s undersea leg of the nuclear triad as its highest priority.
The USS District of Columbia (SSBN 826) — the first of 12 such vessels — is scheduled to be delivered in 2027 and ready to patrol by 2031, even as the service has to move forward with other projects. Any glitch in the schedule could have rippling effects across the service’s entire shipbuilding operations, senior Navy leaders have said.
“That is a must-meet requirement for that class,” said Rear Adm. Scott Pappano, the program executive officer for strategic submarines, during a Hudson Institute seminar in June.
Nonetheless, both the Navy and General Dynamics Electric Boat — the contractor building the Columbia class — say the project is progressing according to plan.
The contractor is about 20 percent into construction on the lead boat and has also started advanced construction and procurement for the second in the class, the USS Wisconsin SSBN827, said Pappano.
Eric Snider, vice president of the Columbia-class program at General Dynamics Electric Boat, expressed confidence in the process — even as construction of the new boat is taking place at the same time and shipyard where the company is building the next Virginia-class fast-attack submarines.
The plan calls for one Columbia and two Virginia subs to be delivered per year — a considerably more accelerated pace than when the fast-attack class’s namesake — SSN-774 — was produced. The Virginia was launched in 2003.
“Columbia is two and a half times the size of a Virginia,” Snider told National Defense. “We’re not completely crazy. We’ve learned a lot about the modular-construction business. We’ve gotten off to a good start, tracking actually ahead of where the Virginia was in her build-out as a lead ship.”
Eighty percent of the Columbia class’s construction is taking place at Electric Boat’s Quonset Point, Rhode Island, and Groton, Connecticut, facilities. Huntington-Ingalls Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia is handling the remaining 20 percent of the workload, with a focus on construction of the bow and stern.
District of Columbia and the 11 future vessels in its class are slated to replace the aging Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines.
“The first Ohio class will be going offline in fiscal year 2027, and we will start heel-to-toe replacements with the Columbia class coming right behind that,” Pappano said.
Meanwhile, work to extend the Ohios’ service life to 41 years from the 20 that were called for when they were built is nearly complete, Pappano said. There is a chance that service lives of some Ohios may be extended a bit longer if necessary, he added. This would happen only if propulsion plants and overall condition are good enough to make such extensions a low-risk proposition. The idea is to ensure that enough submarines — at least 10 ideally — are on patrol at any given time.
The new boats will carry 16 missiles each, representing roughly 70 percent of the nation’s nuclear deterrent. They also will carry Mark 48torpedoes. Their construction will render them the quietest subs ever built. Each will be 560 feet long and displace 20,810 tons, making them the largest submarines to come out of a U.S. shipyard. Their nuclear reactors will not require refueling during the entire planned service life.
Pappano acknowledged that challenges have put a crimp in the plan. The contract was signed and work began during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, making it harder to hire the necessary workforce.
“We’ve taken some very aggressive action to turn that tide,” Pappano said, “There continues to be good progress.”
All the missile tubes for the District of Columbia have been delivered, as have those for the Dreadnought, the British Royal Navy’s counterpart project, he said.
“But I suggest the real risk here is not only getting the lead ship right. We’ve got to get [it] right for the rest of the class,” he added.
Assuming authorization and appropriations come through, construction on the Wisconsin has to begin in 2024, Pappano said. Serial production of one ship per year must begin in 2026. With construction of two Virginia-class submarines taking place at the same time, work must continue on each Columbia. Pappano envisions an alignment of work and collaboration at the industrial base.
“The priority goes to the SSBN — the Columbia class — if there are shortages,” Pappano said.
When the Columbia-class concept was first imagined in 2007, the idea was to incorporate “evolutionary — not revolutionary — technologies,” Snider said.
Both the Navy and Electric Boat leaders believe they have a workable plan because they are relying upon proven techniques during the construction process, rather than attempting any wheel reinvention.
“The exacting and detailed requirements, the timelines that we have to be on, and the need for 100-percent success of delivering the capability drives the need for proven things to be employed,” Snider said.
For instance, the incorporation of modular construction that began with the Virginia class is being fully implemented with the new vessels.
“Columbia will be the first strategic-deterrence submarine class designed to be built in a modular fashion,” Snider said. It is “the most efficient way possible, both from a cost and time standpoint,” he added.
The “stick building” approach that was used years ago when Seawolf and Los Angeles-class boats were constructed — assembling the hull rings, circular cylinders and caps that make up the pressure hull of the submarine and then cutting holes through which equipment and machinery would be moved into place — is gone, Snider said. The old way could be done efficiently, but it was more dangerous.
“Now, we build those circular cylinders that make up the pressure hull of the submarine and jam them pack full of equipment and everything we can while it’s sitting there with the biggest hole that will ever be ... the diameter of the submarine,” Snider said. “Then we bring them all together, weld them up and seal them in the tube that becomes the submarine.”
The evolution that led to Columbia’s emergence also takes into consideration significant changes in the Navy’s demographic. As they now do throughout the fleet, for example, women will serve on these ships. Virginia-class submarines, as new as they are, had to be refitted to accommodate crew members with different shapes, sizes and privacy needs.
Not so with Columbia — the accommodations are being built in as a requirement specified by the Navy from the start. Modern ship construction has long considered the 95th percentile of males when designing line of sight, workspaces, valve placements and other aspects of routine work. The 95th percentile of female crewmembers is now also factored into design, Snider said.
Future modernization should entail easier processes as well, he added, thanks to modular design and a rethinking of certain placements.
“You can design a pump or some component so that it can be very difficult to get to from a replacement standpoint. We have decades of performance data and experience on various components,” Snider said. “The idea [is] things that are going to break frequently, you try to keep that in mind. You try not to wind up with a thing you know you’re going to have to replace every 5 or 10 years in a space that’s nigh on impossible [to get to] without tearing the whole compartment apart.”
At present, the Columbia program appears to be adhering to its tight production schedule and cost projections, said Mark Cancian, senior advisor for the international security program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. The Navy has no other choice, he believes.
“Every strategist says the sea-based leg of the triad is the most important because of its survivability. And the number of boats the Navy is planning to build — 12 — appears in every force-structure assessment, in every shipbuilding plan,” Cancian said in an interview. “The good thing is the Navy has announced a little cost growth but nothing really big. On the other hand, they’re just starting fabrication on the first boats.”
Cancian also considers the plan to simultaneously build a Columbia and two Virginias as ambitious.
“I’m not an expert in shipbuilding capacity, but that is probably beyond what the submarine shipbuilding capacity can support. But I know it is a consideration. Industry always says they can do it, and that’s great. But very often, it turns out to be more difficult than they expected,” he said.
Snider and his team at Electric Boat remain committed to fulfilling the terms of the contract to which the company and Navy agreed.
“We’ve got to underpin the nation’s strategic nuclear deterrent and keep it going, as the nation needs,” Snider said. “It is the number one priority program for the Department of Defense, General Dynamics, and Electric Boat. We’re all completely aligned on that.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the SSN number for Virginia.