DANVILLE, Va. — The U.S. Navy is working to accelerate remaining construction work on the first Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine to brace for potential delays during the first-in-class boat’s testing later this decade.

The Navy and prime contractor General Dynamics’ Electric Boat originally built a six-month buffer into the construction schedule for the future District of Columbia, the first ballistic missile submarine built since the 1990s.

That buffer has been fully eroded due to both pandemic-related challenges and contractor performance, leaders have confirmed, though the boat is still on its contractually mandated schedule.

Rear Adm. Scott Pappano, the program executive officer for strategic submarines, told Defense News at a summit here earlier this month he’s working with the shipbuilders to regain that buffer “to give us the opportunity to have problems in testing as the lead ship.”

Pappano said District of Columbia is through the first phase of structural work and well into the second phase of outfitting. The boat began advanced construction in 2019 and construction in 2020.

Eyeing the upcoming final assembly and test phase, Pappano said “the good news is we know how to test ships. We know how to do final assembly and test.” But there are differences between this Columbia-class boomer and the Virginia-class attack submarine the Navy has built for the past 20 years — chiefly, a strategic weapon system for the nuclear weapons the boomer carries and a first-of-its-kind integrated propulsion system.

“I want to buy more margin back” to allow for challenges in these areas, he said, noting the Navy and industry are seeking to accelerate the remaining outfitting and final assembly work.

Because the Columbia-class SSBN is the Navy’s top acquisition priority and a key effort for the Defense Department as well, the government-industry team has given the Columbia program the resources it needs to stay on schedule, even at the expense of the Virginia submarine program.

Defense News previously reported that, because the Columbia production line was filled first with experienced workers, the Virginia production line at shipbuilding partner HII’s Newport News Shipbuilding wasn’t fully staffed until February. At Electric Boat, the newest employees were assigned to the Virginia program, meaning there were more mistakes and longer rework time, exacerbating existing delays.

Pappano confirmed the industrial base is prioritizing Columbia work, but said it needs to do so even more.

“Get me the best people, the best crews, the best supervisors,” he said. “Have the right people working to drive that first-time quality. First-time quality is going to be the key to buying back margin.”

Though the Navy will formally procure the second sub of the class, the future Wisconsin, this fiscal year — facilitated by a measure Congress included in the continuing resolution now funding the government — advanced construction work has already been underway for a couple years.

Pappano said, in that advanced construction work, he’s already seeing improvements on Wisconsin compared to District of Columbia, which is necessary to meet Wisconsin’s shorter contractual build schedule.

The first submarine was allotted 84 months for the build and test cycle; Wisconsin will have 80. By the end of the 12-submarine program, that will be whittled down to 70 months.

Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.

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