WASHINGTON — On Capitol Hill for a breakfast talk in 2015, the chief of naval operations’ director of undersea warfare could not have been clearer.
The Navy had waited until the last possible moment to start working on a new class of ballistic missile submarine to replace the early 1980s Ohio-class boats, and there just won’t be time for lengthy delays.
“We have effectively skipped an entire SSBN generation,” then-Rear Adm. Joseph Tofalo told the crowd, “but in doing so we have consumed the entire margin for error.”
It was a familiar talking point. The Navy has been pounding the table for years now about the need to move out on Columbia, a crucial part of the country’s nuclear deterrent triad of missiles, bombers and ballistic missile submarines. But the Navy has always acknowledged the tremendous challenge it faces in getting its first Columbia-class boomer procured, constructed, tested and fielded in time for its first patrol slated for 2031. The service is planning to buy the first ship in 2021.
Recent delays and a shakeup in the Virginia-class buying profile, along with a high-profile quality control issue right out of the gate on the missile tubes destined for Columbia have raised red flags and concerns about the submarine building enterprise and its ability to handle the mammoth $115 billion program without delays and major overruns.
The consequence of significant delays to the program is a drop in total number of SSBN’s below what the Navy says is imperative to maintain continuous strategic deterrent patrols as the Ohio-class boats run out of nuclear fuel.
The service has downplayed concerns, saying that the delays in Virginia deliveries, which will be between four to seven months for the foreseeable future, are measured against accelerated construction timeline goals. Furthermore, the quality control issues identified with the missile tubes fabricated by BWXT, Inc., were identified are being corrected, leaving the Navy still 11 months ahead of schedule for the tubes.
But the Navy has also injected new uncertainty into the schedule by shaking up the buying profile for the Block Five Virginia class, Defense News reported April 3. The service is shifting from its plan of adding the 84-foot section to nine of the 10 planned Virginias in Block Five to adding an 11th boat at the last minute and canceling one of so-called Virginia Payload Modules. (The VPM is designed to triple the Virginia’s Tomahawk strike missile capacity.)
Nuclear submarines are constructed in a joint effort between Huntington Ingalls Newport News in Virginia and General Dynamics Electric Boat in Connecticut. Both have labored to increase their workforce and prime a diminished supplier base for increased Virginia-class production and the start of the Columbia-class program.
Concerns inside industry and among experts are growing because of fears that the combined effect of compounding delays, as well as the Navy’s injecting new uncertainty, could increase the chances for further delays in the Virginia program and ripple into the strategically vital Columbia class.
Several sources familiar with industry concerns who spoke on background said adding the third boat as well as shaking up the buying profile for Virginia Payload Module could have unintended consequences as the yards try to simultaneously support normal Virginia class construction, construction of the much larger Virginia Payload Module ships and the Columbia.
Those worries get to the core of what makes a successful shipbuilding program, said Dan Gouré, a former Bush Administration defense official and military analyst with the Arlington-based Lexington Institute.
“Like there is one rule in real estate (location, location, location), there is one rule in building ships: Predictability, predictability, predictability,” Gouré said. “And they are messing with that now, for the first time in quite a while. And that makes no sense.”
Gouré said the late-in-the-game nature of the shift in buying profile is particularly concerning, especially just a year before they plan to kick off construction of Columbia, because of the connected nature of the Virginia and Columbia programs.
“These yards are integrated,” he said. “When you start messing with the other program on a short-notice basis, you risk the yards being able to deliver on time and at cost for multiple programs.
“So, for the Navy, Columbia is their number one priority. But you are also messing with the other programs. That makes it at least of concern that if there is a problem with Columbia that industry won’t be able to transfer the resources – people, material, whatever it is – to fix what needs to be fixed because you have upset the timelines of those other programs.
“In a sense you risk the worst of both worlds: You risk further perturbations in the Virginia class, and at the same time risk not being able to get Columbia out on time.”
A defense source speaking on background said the third boat in 2020 was a late addition by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and in public testimony the Navy has acknowledged that the service was until recently planning for a 10-boat block buy for Block V.
That set up a strange circumstance because the Navy usually buys Virginias over three years with two years of advanced procurement ahead of each hull. But the third boat in 2020 is being bought all in one year, which the Navy’s acquisition boss said in recent testimony meant the Navy wouldn’t be able to start construction on the boat until 2023.
James Geurts, the Navy’s head of Research, Development and Acquisition, told the House Armed Service Committee’s seapower subcommittee that keeping the risk to Columbia low was part of the reason to put the boat in the budget now because it gives industry time to hire and work the supplier base.
“The other thing that’s important is … keeping in mind Columbia coming along, and … by loading it now [it] gives us the most time to figure out how to use that efficiently as a risk reduction element for Columbia — i.e. we can get some of the additional workforce trained up, get some more of the supplier base and get some of the supplier builds out of the way before Columbia gets here,” Geurts said. “So, we are working to put all of those together.”
Whether the workforce and supplier base can handle the increased demands and perturbations in the schedule is an open question. The private shipyards in charge of construction Virginia and Columbia are also being newly tasked with submarine maintenance, jobs that are falling months behind schedule in part because of a slow supply chain, according a recent report in USNI News.
“I think it’s a combination of getting a skilled workforce up and operating, getting the planning available across both private and public yards to the level of detail needed, and then it is contending for material – because as we bring these maintenance availabilities in, you’re contending for material that’s also going to Virginia and now Columbia (ballistic missile submarine program),” Geurts told USNI News. “So, we’ve got to look at it as a whole ecosystem, and that’s what we’re doing right now.”
The bad years
The ecosystem for submarine parts is in trouble, something the Navy has known for more than two decades, said Bryan Clark, a retired submarine officer and analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, something that has become more evident with the delays in the Virginia class.
“It does not bode well if they are already seeing delays in the Virginia program with building two per year,” Clark said. “Within the supplier base there are a lot of sole-source and single-source suppliers who provide parts for Virginia, but also for Columbia. One of the unintended consequences of using a lot of common components between Virginia and Columbia is you have to rely on the same suppliers.”
The Navy likes common parts and components because it cuts down on specialized training, maintenance time and costs, but if the supplier is not sized to take on the level of work the Navy wants, it can cause delays to creep into the system, Clark explained.
Furthermore, the suppliers may be hesitant to invest in expanding their business because within recent memory the Navy has cut back on submarine building. Some suppliers remember the lean times and don’t want to be caught out on a limb when Columbia wraps up.
“In the 1990s we suffered a reduction in sub building with the Seawolf debacle,” Clark said, referring to a submarine program that was slashed from 29 to three hulls because of costs. “Then we moved to Virginia and that had a lot of problems starting out.
“There was a five- or six-year period when we weren’t building a lot of submarines, and a lot of suppliers went out of business. The suppliers that survived right-sized their business to meet the current demand, and these companies are saying: ‘Do I expand now when down the road there could be another issue like Seawolf?’ ”
It’s a question the Navy is going to have to tackle if it hopes to field Columbia on time, Clark said, but it was not an issue that was unexpected.
“This is something that was always going to happen as the Navy ramped up,” Clark said. “And the Navy is starting to see it with building two Virginias per year.”
David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.