WASHINGTON — The U.S. Navy announced Thursday it had inked a $9.47 billion contract with builder General Dynamics Electric Boat for the full construction cost of the lead boat of the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine, as well as advanced procurement money for the second boat, the future USS Wisconsin.

The announcement marks the end of the beginning for the Columbia class, which the Navy has for years said is its top priority. The 12-ship class will replace the retiring Ohio-class submarines. The Columbia is slated to make its first patrol in 2031, and the Navy says it must meet the timeline to maintain continuous sea-based deterrent patrols.

The contract also covers continued component testing and engineering, according to the DoD contract announcement.

“The contract modification exercises an option for construction and test of the lead and second ships of the Columbia class SSBN 826 and SSBN 827, as well as associated design and engineering support,” the contract reads.

From here on out, the program is about getting things in order to prepare for full production in the second half of the 2020s, when the Navy plans to buy one per year, the service’s top acquisition official told reporters Thursday.

“Now it’s really about execution,” said James Geurts, the Navy’s head of research, development and acquisition. "It’s making sure that now, with the contract in place, transitioning into full construction. ...

“The design, maturity of this program surpasses any other submarine we have ever done. We’ve got a solid design. Now it’s moving to design refinement to design complete, and advanced construction into full construction for the first ship. And then not taking our eye off the ball of the fact that we will quickly move into, by the third, annual construction.”

Getting the first ship right will be key, Geurts continued.

“There’s a whole lot of effort to get the first ship out, and get the first ship out right,” he said. “That’s necessary, but not sufficient. We’ve got to make sure the enterprise is ready to execute the full scope of the program so that we can meet the requirements for the nation.”

The second hull is fully priced into the contract, Navy officials said on the call, meaning that when the Navy wants to exercise the option planned for 2024, it will not have to renegotiate for the cost of full construction.

The Columbia program is a massively expensive undertaking, with the Navy estimating it will run about $7.5 billion per hull over the class. By 2026, when the Navy will be buying one Columbia per year, considering the FY21′s roughly $20 billion shipbuilding request as a guide, Columbia would eat up to 38 percent of the Navy’s shipbuilding money at a time when DoD believes the Navy needs to expand the fleet to meet a rising Chinese naval threat.

In January, the cost of Columbia drew a blunt assessment from Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday, who said if the Navy is going to expand, it needs more cash.

“Here’s the deal, we need more money,” Gilday said. "We need more top line.

“If you believe that we require overmatch in the maritime domain, if you believe that in order to execute distributed maritime operations and to operate forward in numbers now that we need more iron, then, yes, we need more top line.”

Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., who represents the district where GDEB is located, said the contract was a victory for the submarine industrial base, which has been under enormous strain as the Navy ramps up to building two Virginia-class submarines per year and the Columbia class.

“This isn’t just a milestone for the shipbuilders at EB — the Columbia-class program will also be a major opportunity for industry partners up and down the supply chain for years to come, and a foundational piece for our region’s economic future,” Courtney said. "Generations of shipbuilders and manufacturers will get their start working on this multi-decade program, and it’s an exciting time to get more people into the pipeline for the jobs and opportunities that will come with the start of this effort.:

David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.

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